We're Not As Good At Remembering Faces As We Think We Are

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on November 2, 2017 12:50 pm
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Have you ever been in this situation before? Maybe you're at a party. Maybe you're walking down the street. And, suddenly, out of a sea of passing faces, one of them lights up, looking right at you. The person starts waving, maybe says hello. And you have absolutely no clue who this person is. In this encore story, NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains why some of us are really good at recognizing faces and others are not.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Marty Doerschlag has a superpower that I would love to have. He can remember a face forever.

MARTY DOERSCHLAG: If I spend about 30 seconds looking at somebody, I will remember their face for years and years and years.

JULIE DOERSCHLAG: His wife, Julie, says one time they were in Las Vegas, sitting down for dinner at a restaurant. And Marty looked at the waiter. He's like, oh, you waited on me in Columbus, Ohio, in X year. The guy just froze. And he said, yeah, you're right.

VEDANTAM: Here's the thing. Marty's wife, Julie - she's terrible with faces.

J. DOERSCHLAG: I've had a lot of uncomfortable situations forgetting people and have been accused of being a snob.

VEDANTAM: Now, you might think that with his gift, Marty could at least be Julie's crutch. But it doesn't always work out that way.

J. DOERSCHLAG: Well, sometimes, he doesn't catch me in time. I think we were at one of your friend's apartments. A guy came in, and I went up and hugged him and said, oh, it's so good to see you again. And Marty's friend leaned over and said, why is Julie hugging the caterer?

VEDANTAM: So on the facial recognition spectrum, from Marty to Julie, where do most of us fall?

MIKE BURTON: I think that nobody really knew until the last few years just how bad we all are with unfamiliar faces.

VEDANTAM: This is Mike Burton, a professor of psychology at the University of York in the United Kingdom. He says we're remarkably bad at recognizing the faces of people we don't know very well. To make matters worse, many of us think we're great at it.

BURTON: So we set up this little experiment where we asked people to match pairs of faces. They just have to say, are these two faces the same person or not?

VEDANTAM: Volunteers were shown faces they were familiar with and faces that were unfamiliar. They were given a matching task where they were given two photos and had to tell if it was the same person.

BURTON: We are fantastic at recognizing faces - those faces of people we know. We can recognize our family and friends across a huge range of conditions - you know, distances, in bad light - all kinds. But we falsely assume that this means we're quite good at phrases in general. And, in fact, we're not.

VEDANTAM: While it's funny to see our confidence in our own abilities cut down to size, there are serious implications here.

BURTON: Even professionals are really bad at it. So we did some work with passport officers last year, where we showed that even passport officers find this a very difficult task and are often inaccurate.

VEDANTAM: As bad as most humans can be at recognizing and matching faces, there are some humans who are exceptionally good at it. But for a regular person like Marty Doerschlag back in Washington, D.C., there isn't a huge upside. In fact, it mostly leads to awkwardness.

M. DOERSCHLAG: You don't want to make people feel uncomfortable. So when I have that approach with someone, and they obviously don't have any idea what I'm talking about, it's just not worth it, I think, you know, to cause that discomfort.

VEDANTAM: That's not to say that things are any easier for his wife, Julie, at the other end of the spectrum. As someone in the same boat as Julie, my request for the next NPR office party - everyone, please wear name tags.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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