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face blindness

Are You A Super-Recognizer?

I recognize you!

I recognize you!

If you met somebody from your third grade class, would you recognize her? How about someone you last saw a decade ago at a company where you used to work? How about a person you saw in a mug shot at the Post Office?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you may be a super-recognizer. Super-recognizers literally never forget a face. They may also give us the next great leap forward in law enforcement.

We haven’t known about super recognizers for very long. Over the past 20 years or so, researchers have learned a great deal about the opposite condition known as prosopagnosia or face blindness. Some people – perhaps two percent of the population — just can’t remember faces. They’re “blind” to the faces around them. They can interact with you perfectly well while they’re with you but they won’t recognize you the next time they see you.

Researchers initially thought that this was a binary condition – either you were normal or you were face blind. Then someone had the bright idea that the ability to recognize faces might be distributed along a normal curve. If face blind people are clustered under one tail of the curve then the other tail should include people who are exceptionally good at recognizing faces – the super-recognizers.

It turns out that they were right. In 2009, Richard Russell and his colleagues published the first academic paper on the subject: “Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability”.

It seems like a typical academic topic but the story took an unusual twist when the Metropolitan Police Service in London took up the idea. As detailed in a recent story in The New Yorker, the Met experimented with super-recognizers as detectives. London has more security cameras than any other city in the world but couldn’t turn the images into a crime-fighting advantage. The city had millions of low-resolution images of potential criminals and nobody to interpret them.

The Met tried to change that with an organized team of super-recognizers. The super-recognizers browse through mug shots and then review footage from security cameras that have recorded a crime. In a surprising number of cases, the super-recognizer has an “aha” moment and links a miscreant to a mug shot.

How good are they? The Met calls super-recognizers “the third revolution in forensics” after fingerprints and DNA evidence. The Met solves about 2,000 cases a year with fingerprints and another 2,000 with DNA. By comparison, the super-recognizers solve about 2,500 cases.

At this point, you may be wondering just how good you are at recognizing faces. Here’s how to find out – the Cambridge Face Memory Test. Click here and you can take the same test that the Met uses to screen applicants for the super-recognizer team. If you get a high score, you might just apply for a position with your local police force.

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