Super Recognizers, People Who Are Highly Skilled at Remembering Faces

Super Recognizers, People Who Are Highly Skilled at Remembering Faces
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 29 November, 2021

It’s estimated that around two percent of people are skilled at recognizing faces. We’re talking about genuine ‘super-recognizers’ here. In other words, the kinds of people who only have to see a face once to be able to identify it again, months or even years later. Furthermore, to be able to specify when and where they saw it. As you can probably imagine, this is a highly sought-after skill in intelligence services.

As a matter of fact, Scotland Yard has a squad of more than 200 super-recognizers. They’re people who possess this basic ability, but who are trained to apply it effectively and in different contexts. The ability is in high demand in instances of counterterrorism.

This trait is the exact opposite of what happens to people affected by prosopagnosia. This is a type of visual agnosia that makes it impossible for someone to recognize familiar faces. Therefore, we’re talking about two extremes of brain function here, where some are at a sad disadvantage while others border on the extraordinary.

There’s a test for recognizing a super recognizer. However, data suggests that very few achieve 100 percent when tested.

Man looking at a woman on the street symbolizing People skilled in recognizing faces

People skilled in recognizing faces, what are they like?

People skilled at recognizing faces have always existed. However, the term ‘super recognizers’ was coined in 2009 by Harvard University (USA) and University College London (UK). Therefore, although the skill has always attracted the attention of scientists, there are now more tools to detect and understand it.

In a study conducted by James D. Dunn, Stephanie Summersby, and Alice Towler from the University of New South Wales (Australia), they presented the UNSW facial test. With this, and via a series of highly standardized tests, they can identify these most extraordinary people. However, it’s not easy to achieve a score of 100 percent.

Although it was presented in 2020, the UNSW test has been freely accessible since 2017. The researchers discovered that, of the 31,000 people who’ve completed it, no one has yet obtained a score of 100 percent. In fact, the highest score is 97 percent. Therefore, as the authors of this test point out, the great super recognizer has yet to be discovered.

According to scientists, someone is considered a good facial recognizer when they get 70 percent of the answers correcton the UNSW test. At present, they still hope to find someone with exceptional abilities.

How are people skilled at recognizing faces?

We probably envisage people skilled in recognizing faces as unique figures worthy of inclusion in any John Le Carré novel. However, they’re as normal as they’re nondescript. In fact, they could be any one of us. Let’s take a look at their defining characteristics.

  • Super recognizers rarely exhibit above-average intelligence. In addition, they’re not usually even aware that they possess this ability.
  • This competence appears in childhood. As children, they see faces in magazines or on television and remember them years later. In fact, they can even remember where and when they saw them for the first time.
  • For a long time, it was thought that this skill could be trained. Indeed, it’s true that many police officers are able to develop a certain level of competence. However, one thing science now knows is that people skilled at recognizing faces are born with this trait. It’s therefore a genetic characteristic that defines a very low percentage of the population.
  • It also defines a unique nuance. This is the fact that a super recognizer only has to look at someone for a few seconds to notice a multitude of details. Indeed, they have a photographic memory for everything visual. However, the most defining thing is that, even if decades go by, they know when and where they saw a particular face.
face between binary numbers to symbolize People skilled in recognizing faces

Face Recognizers and Voice Recognizers

Are you good at identifying voices? Could you listen to a specific person’s voice right now and recognize it months later? As striking as it may seem, many of the people skilled in recognizing faces are also skilled in recognizing voices.

State-of-the-art research exists in this area to prove it. In fact, the University of Greenwich, in the United Kingdom, has been able to show that a percentage of super recognizers are also extremely skilled at recognizing voices. However, the next challenge is to understand what neurological mechanisms orchestrate these extraordinary abilities.

Scientists suspect that there’s much greater potential in the regions of the brain charged with processing and recalling information. It’s not a simple case of having a photographic memory. In fact, it’s a type of visual and auditory memory capable of discriminating voices and faces, and also placing them in a specific place and time. It’s rather like someone who goes on the subway every morning and is able to remember each of those faces they see for the rest of their life.

These are, without a doubt, unique and extraordinary facets of the human being. Capabilities for which we still don’t have all the answers. We don’t know why some have it as soon as they come into the world and others don’t. Nevertheless, it’s clear that this particular skill is in high demand in one specific field of our society. The intelligence and police services.

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  • Jenkins, RETsermentseli, SMonks, CP, et al. Are super-face-recognisers also super-voice-recognisers? Evidence from cross-modal identification tasksAppl Cognit Psychol202135590– 605https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3813
  • James D. Dunn, Stephanie Summersby, Alice Towler, Josh P. Davis, David White. Prueba facial UNSW: una herramienta de detección para superreconocimientos . PLOS ONE , 2020; 15 11: e0241747 DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0241747
  • Russell, Richard; Duchaine, Brad; Nakayama, Ken (abril de 2009). “Superreconocimientos: personas con una extraordinaria capacidad de reconocimiento facial”. Boletín y revisión psiconómica. 16 (2): 252–257. doi:10.3758