Holistic face processing can inhibit recognition of forensic facial composites



McIntyre AH, Hancock PJB, Frowd CD & Langton SRH (2016) Holistic face processing can inhibit recognition of forensic facial composites. Law and Human Behavior, 40 (2), pp. 128-135.

Facial composite systems help eyewitnesses to show the appearance of criminals. However, likenesses created by unfamiliar witnesses will not be completely accurate, and people familiar with the target can find them difficult to identify. Faces are processed holistically; we explore whether this impairs identification of inaccurate composite images and whether recognition can be improved. In Experiment 1 (n = 64) an imaging technique was used to make composites of celebrity faces more accurate and identification was contrasted with the original composite images. Corrected composites were better recognized, confirming that errors in production of the likenesses impair identification. The influence of holistic face processing was explored by misaligning the top and bottom parts of the composites (cf. Young, Hellawell, & Hay, 1984). Misalignment impaired recognition of corrected composites but identification of the original, inaccurate composites significantly improved. This effect was replicated with facial composites of non-celebrities in Experiment 2 (n = 57). We conclude that, like real faces, facial composites are processed holistically: recognition is impaired because unlike real faces, composites contain inaccuracies and holistic face processing makes it difficult to perceive identifiable features. This effect was consistent across composites of celebrities and composites of people who are personally familiar. Our findings suggest that identification of forensic facial composites can be enhanced by presenting composites in a misaligned format.

facial composite; face recognition; configural; featural; holistic; eyewitness

Law and Human Behavior: Volume 40, Issue 2

Publication date30/04/2016
Publication date online05/10/2015
Date accepted by journal16/06/2015
PublisherAmerican Psychological Association

People (2)


Professor Peter Hancock

Professor Peter Hancock

Professor, Psychology

Dr Stephen Langton

Dr Stephen Langton

Senior Lecturer, Psychology