The impact of external facial features on the construction of facial composites



Brown C, Portch E, Skelton FC, Fodarella C, Kuivaniemi-Smith H, Herold K, Hancock PJB & Frowd CD (2019) The impact of external facial features on the construction of facial composites. Ergonomics, 62 (4), pp. 575-592.

Witnesses may construct a composite face of a perpetrator using a computerised interface. Police practitioners guide witnesses through this unusual process, the goal being to produce an identifiable image. However, any changes a perpetrator makes to their external facial-features may interfere with this process. In Experiment 1, participants constructed a composite using a holistic interface one day after target encoding. Target faces were unaltered, or had altered external-features: (i) changed hair, (ii) external-features removed or (iii) naturally-concealed external-features (hair, ears, face-shape occluded by a hooded top). These manipulations produced composites with more error-prone internal-features: participants’ familiar with a target’s unaltered appearance less often provided a correct name. Experiment 2 applied external-feature alterations to composites of unaltered targets; although whole-face composites contained less error-prone internal-features, identification was impaired. Experiment 3 replicated negative effects of changing target hair on construction and tested a practical solution: selectively concealing hair and eyes improved identification.

facial composite; altered external-features, hair; holistic face processing; witness

Ergonomics: Volume 62, Issue 4

Publication date30/04/2019
Publication date online04/02/2019
Date accepted by journal01/12/2018

People (1)


Professor Peter Hancock

Professor Peter Hancock

Professor, Psychology