Super-recognizers -- people with exceptional face-processing and matching abilities -- could play an important role in policing and security settings such as border control, Bournemouth University (BU) research has found.
Matching unfamiliar faces with photographic identity documents -- such as passports -- or trying to spot criminals in a crowd or CCTV footage is a difficult and error-prone task for the majority of the population.
But research by BU's Dr Sarah Bate and Anna Bobak has found that super-recognizers significantly outperformed control participants in two face-matching tasks designed to mimic the challenges border control officers face daily.
BU Research Fellow Anna said: "What we found was that super-recognizers were much better at matching faces, so they potentially could be very valuable personnel for border control.
"Passport photographs are valid for ten years and in that time someone's appearance can change significantly -- anything from facial hair to weight fluctuations and haircuts. Someone can even go from being a child or adolescent to an adult on the same passport.
"So having someone who's very capable of doing those tasks would not only prevent fraudulent attempts happening, but also potentially speed up the process of checking those passports."
Super-recognizers are people with significantly better than average face recognition skills -- often able to remember and match faces after many years have passed or in a dramatically different context.
The BU research, published in journal Plos One, found that super-recognizers outperformed typical participants by 10 and 18 per cent on two different tasks when deciding whether two photographs are of the same person or two different people -- something that passport officers have to do on a daily basis.
Dr Sarah Bate, a Principal Academic in BU's Department of Psychology, said: "This work is particularly important because it is becoming increasingly clear that computers can't reliably replace humans in face recognition tasks.
"The identification of super recognizers offers an alternative way by which we can improve national security using human resources. If we can also identify the processing strategies used by super recognizers it is possible we can teach these techniques to people with typical face recognition skills."
While no scientific research has yet been published about the prevalence of super recognition in the general population, it seems that very few people have the skill.
"Super-recognizers recognise people after many years have passed and there's been quite a substantial change in appearance -- such as when someone goes from being a child to being an adult," said Anna.
"Quite often they tell us that they try not to approach people that they recognise, because it creates all sorts of awkward situations."
Further research by the BU team has explored what makes super-recognizers so good at processing and remembering faces.
It used eye-tracking technology to see where and for how long people focus on images of faces, both individually and in a social context.
Anna said: "We've found that they tend to look at faces in a slightly different way -- whereas people normally look mostly at the eyes and then the nose and mouth, super-recognizers really tend to look in the middle of the face."
She added: "Super recognizers would be very useful in any sort of identity matching scenarios.
"At the moment we are in the initial stages of working with the local police -- hopefully we'll be able to help them identify super-recognizers in their ranks and perhaps they can use them on assignments that are to do with face recognition and face matching.
"Super-recognition and its applications are very wide and it's really important that those people's skills are put to good use."
You can find out more about the research and test to see if you might be a super-recogniser at: http://prosopagnosiaresearch.org/super-recogniser
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