Recovering faces from memory: the distracting influence of external facial features



Frowd CD, Skelton FC, Atherton CJ, Pitchford M, Hepton G, Holden L, McIntyre AH & Hancock PJB (2012) Recovering faces from memory: the distracting influence of external facial features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18 (2), pp. 224-238.

Recognition memory for unfamiliar faces is facilitated when contextual cues (e.g. head pose, background environment, hair and clothing) are consistent between study and test. By contrast, inconsistencies in external features, especially hair, promote errors in unfamiliar face-matching tasks. For the construction of facial composites, as carried out by witnesses and victims of crime, the role of external features (hair, ears and neck) is less clear, although research does suggest their involvement. Here, over three experiments, we investigate the impact of external features for recovering facial memories using a modern, recognition-based composite system, EvoFIT. Participant-constructors inspected an unfamiliar target face and, one day later, repeatedly selected items from arrays of whole faces, with ‘breeding’, to ‘evolve’ a composite with EvoFIT; further participants (evaluators) named the resulting composites. In Experiment 1, the important internal-features (eyes, brows, nose and mouth) were constructed more identifiably when the visual presence of external features was decreased by Gaussian blur during construction: higher blur yielded more identifiable internal-features. In Experiment 2, increasing the visible extent of external features (to match the target’s) in the presented face-arrays also improved internal-features quality, although less so than when external features were masked throughout construction. Experiment 3 demonstrated that masking external-features promoted substantially more identifiable images than using the previous method of blurring external-features. Overall, the research indicates that external features are a distractive rather than a beneficial cue for face construction; the results also provide a much better method to construct composites, one that should dramatically increase identification of offenders.

EvoFIT; Facial composites; hair; unfamiliar faces; Face perception; Face Psysiology

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied: Volume 18, Issue 2

Publication date31/12/2012
Publication date online31/12/2012
PublisherAmerican Psychological Association (APA)

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Professor Peter Hancock

Professor Peter Hancock

Professor, Psychology