Hey, that's you (and not your brother)!

What do we need to recognize the face of a familiar person?

There are many studies investigating face recognition, but most focus on how well we can identify a learned face among other identities under various conditions of testing. For example we are better at a task with faces of our own ethnicity than with faces of another ethnicity. An often overseen question about faces recognition is: what is remembered exactly about a face? In our study we show that we remember more accurately the features of a person than her exact sexual or racial appearance. We took pictures of faces of our colleagues in our department who knew each other well and modified slightly their sex, making their faces look more and more feminine and more and more masculine. All those modified faces along the original face were shown together. It was difficult for our colleagues to identify which one was the correct face. We found similar results when the ethnicity of the faces was modified. In contrast, our colleagues could quite easily identity the original faces of their coworkers when the modified faces were faces morphed more and more with unknown faces.

1. Why were you interested in this topic?
We have worked very often with faces modified in terms of their sex or their identity and noticed that the former ones look more similar to each other than the latter ones. Those faces were mostly unfamiliar faces. We wanted to test whether this was valid even for faces that we know very well. If true, it would uncover an unknown aspect of face representation.

2. What should the average person take away from your study?
If you want to disguise yourselves to avoid being recognized, it is not a good strategy to change sex, modifying your appearance to look like a different person of the same sex is a better strategy, at least for faces.

3. What is your study/paper contributing to the added value for the society?
Correctly identifying faces is crucial for our social life. Our study contributes to a better understanding of how faces are recognized.

4. Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
In fact, all faces are very similar to each other. Nevertheless we excel in face recognition. For example we manage to recognize a friend after 20 years, even if she has a different hairdo, different glasses and more wrinkles. This fact still raises many unanswered questions.

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