Why You Can’t Trust Yourself to Match Photos of Strangers’ Faces




Tested with this and other pairings of comparable difficulty, subjects accepted about 24 percent of fake matches. Novices were conned most easily, a study found, when the two strangers had a similar hairstyle.

The American Psychological Association

Matching up photos of strangers’ faces is surprisingly difficult, and the average person is likely to be duped by matching hairstyles.

These are two key findings from a study published in the most recent issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, which gained additional relevance this week as people across the internet rushed to expose — or “doxx” — the identities of participants in the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The case earlier this week of an engineering professor in Arkansas who was incorrectly identified as a torch-wielding marcher seems to illustrate this point.

Contrary to what your eyes may be telling you, these are not the same men.

“It seems rather easy. You have a picture of a person and you just have to tell whether it’s the same person or not,” Benedikt Wirth, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the Saarland University who studies facial processing abilities, said in an interview in July. “But our research and previous research shows this is a really demanding task and there’s a lot of error.”

Numerous studies have shown that people will be wrong 10 to 30 percent of the time when asked to determine whether two photos of similar-looking strangers are the same person. What interested Mr. Wirth was whether professional experience increased accuracy.

He studied this question by testing 96 German federal police officers, whose jobs involve checking passport photos, as well as students with no experience in this realm. His study is one of several that have emerged in recent years aimed at helping border authorities get better at spotting fraudulent passports.


A study tested 96 experienced German Federal police officers and students with no experience in this realm to determine whether the small photo in the passport matched the larger headshot above. The police officers accepted 25 percent of fake passports in the setup compared with 26 percent by novices.

The professionals avoided being tricked by a matching hairstyle more often than the amateurs. But it turns out that even years on the job do not make this challenging task much easier. Experienced police officers accepted 25 percent of fake passports in the setup pictured above, compared with 26 percent by novices. For reasons he could not explain, new officers performed the best, accepting around 20 percent of mismatched photos.

The conclusion, he said, with relevance beyond border agents, is that face matching can be tricky, no matter how experienced you are.

What enables people to excel at face matching is different from what enables them to excel at other types of face processing tasks, according to Josh P. Davis, a research psychologist at the Greenwich University in London, who helped create this online test to identify individuals known as “super recognizers.” It’s possible, for example, to have exceptional facial memory but do quite poorly at matching tasks or vice versa. The implication is that just because you are incredible at recognizing people you met once, you’re not necessarily equipped to be certain that a man in a photo you found on the internet is the same as the white nationalist in the photo holding a torch.

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