In his job as a recruiter, Duncan’s special ability has proven extremely useful many times. “People are often extremely flattered by me,” he says. Why? Because Duncan always remembers them, more precisely: their faces. Even if he or she has only seen an applicant on a social media photo, he immediately knows exactly who he is looking at in live contact. Duncan is what science calls a “Super Recognizer”.
Super-Recognizers or “Super-Recognizers” like him are extremely good at remembering human faces and assigning them. They succeed even if the last encounter with a person was many years ago. And they succeed if they saw this person on some completely insignificant occasion back then: for example in the checkout line in the supermarket or in a crowd waiting on a train track.
There are quite a few people in the world who are good at recognizing strange faces. Real super-recognizers, however, are rare, they make up an estimated one to two percent of the population. The Australian psychologist James Dunn’s team has set itself the task of finding them and harnessing their extraordinary ability for business, security or politics.
The scientists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney have just published a study on super recognizers in the specialist magazine “PLOS One”. It also contains a test that the research group has been using since 2017 to identify super talented facial recognition. If you want to know how your recognition skills are doing: You can take the test online here. This takes about 20 minutes.
Super-Recognizer: exciting professional opportunities
But be careful: the test is extremely difficult. “When people take our UNSW Face Test, they quickly notice that it is really difficult,” says study author James Dunn. “Most of them achieve around 50 or 60 percent.” Super-Recognizers, explains Dunn, are only those who achieve values of 70 percent and more in the test. The maximum value that a test person has achieved so far is 97 percent. Of the 31,000 test persons who have participated so far, none of them have broken the 100 percent mark – possibly an incentive for you.
If you really have the feeling that you are exceptionally good at recognizing faces, then the test could give you the necessary information about as good you are actually at it. And should it then turn out that you are an undiscovered super-recognizer, then that can in turn open up some professional opportunities for you.
Work in the casino or at the Oktoberfest
“We are slowly starting to see entire industries inside and outside of their organizations looking for Super Recognizers to work in specific positions where faces need to be identified,” says forensic scientist James Dunn. That could be asked of the police, secret or security services, financial institutions and even casinos. A German policeman with proven exceptional facial recognition capabilities has already made a name for himself here: He succeeded in arresting a debit card thief in a Stuttgart casino while he was sitting in front of a machine, reported the Stuttgarter Nachrichten at the time.
The super recognizers have also been tried out at the Oktoberfest. In 2018, the Munich police launched an internal online appeal for employees, reported the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” at the time. 5,300 police officers and employees of the Presidium took part. In the end, there were 37 super-recognizers, 13 women and 24 men – who used their skills at the world’s largest folk festival. For example, they helped catch pickpockets there.
You can well imagine such an activity, but do you have the feeling that you still have some catching up to do when it comes to “recognizing strange faces”? In this case, the researchers from Australia have bad news for you: you cannot learn “super recognition”; the talent is largely innate. “We found that the ability to recognize facial features varied in a similar way to the IQ,” says James Dunn. “And just like with IQ, it looks like a large part of these individual differences are determined by genes.”
“I felt like crazy sometimes”
By the way, if you ask real super-recognizers what life feels like as a face recognition genius, you get very different answers. Unlike the HR manager Duncan, who reports on his positive experiences in a press release from the University of New South Wales, Sallie, for example, thinks that her talent is often a burden. “I often have to lie and say that I’ve never seen anyone before,” she says. “Otherwise, a lot of people get scared. When I say, ‘Oh, I saw you at Woolworth’s last week, it makes me look like a stalker. ”
A super-recognizer named Amanda says something similar: “I stopped saying to people: ‘Hello, we were in line at Coles the other day (an Australian supermarket, editor’s note) entertain, do you remember? I just got way too many irritated looks and sometimes felt like a crazy person – because I always thought that others would recognize me as well as I would recognize them. “
Doesn’t this prospect put you off? Then try the test on the homepage of the Australian university. Should you then actually prove to be a super recognizer, the researchers will contact you – and possibly invite you to their laboratory. This is the next step in the research of James Dunn’s team: In live contact, the scientists want to find out exactly why the super-recognizers are so extraordinarily good at recognition.