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In Conversation with Dr Catriona Havard:  Facial identification…harder than we think?

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Dr Catriona Havard, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Open University, and published Academic, talks to the Open Psychology Research Centre (OPRC) Centre Assistant, Sue Cocklin, about her fascinating research into facial recognition.

Sue: Hello Catriona, tell me, what is your research about?

Catriona: Unfamiliar face matching, that is, deciding if two different images of a face are the same person or two different people, is important for a variety of identification tasks, such as passport control, and selling restricted items such as alcohol that require photographic identification. Although matching two faces may seem like a straightforward task, a wealth of psychological research has shown that, even from high-quality images, it can be difficult and error prone.

Sue: What are the problems encountered?

Catriona: Matching a face to a photo or deciding if two photos are the same person becomes even more error prone when the person making the decision is a different race to the faces they are trying to identify. This is called the own race bias, or cross race effect, a phenomenon whereby people are much better at identifying faces that are the same race as them, and much less accurate with faces that are of a different race to them.

Sue:  Tell me about what is happening in your study right now.

Catriona: In the current study, participants in the UK and China were asked to match pairs of faces presented at the same time and decide if they were the same person or two different people. The aim of the study was to investigate the importance of the internal or external features of the faces, and whether they would influence the own race bias. Half the faces were Caucasian and half were Asian, some were whole faces, some had the external features masked (hair) and other the internal features masked (eyes, nose, mouth).  The removal of external features increased the own-race bias for both groups, especially for Chinese participants matching Caucasian faces, suggesting that Caucasian hair is an important cue for unfamiliar face matching tasks. Removing the external features was more detrimental in deciding that a face pair was two different people, suggesting that external features, such as hair, are more useful in telling faces apart, whilst the internal features, eyes, nose, and mouth, were more useful when two images were the same person.

Sue:  Tell me about the impact this research has.

Catriona: This research has real world implications when it comes to tasks like matching someone to their passport or trying to identify those captured on CCTV to police custody suite images. For example, individuals conducting these face comparison tasks are much more likely to make mistakes if they are from a different race to those they are trying to identify. Furthermore, the task will become even more open to error if the person they are trying to identify has changed their hair, or is concealing it in some way, and this could lead to misidentifications.

Sue:  Thank you so much for talking to me today, what a fascinating subject. 

To read more about Dr Havard and her studies, see her recent article within the OU Faculty of Arts and Social Science website LINK HERE and a link to her abstract ‘The Importance of Internal and External Features in Matching Own and Other Race Faces’ in the Perception Journal of Sage Journals LINK HERE

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