Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Infrequent Identity Mismatches Are Frequently Undetected

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Infrequent Identity Mismatches Are Frequently Undetected

Article excerpt

Published online: 6 February 2014

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract The ability to quickly and accurately match faces to photographs bears critically on many domains, from controlling purchase of age-restricted goods to law enforcement and airport security. Despite its pervasiveness and importance, research has shown that face matching is surprisingly error prone. The majority of face-matching research is conducted under idealized conditions (e.g., using photographs of individuals taken on the same day) and with equal proportions of match and mismatch trials, a rate that is likely not observed in everyday face matching. In four experiments, we presented observers with photographs of faces taken an average of 1.5 years apart and tested whether face-matching performance is affected by the prevalence of identity mismatches, comparing conditions of low (10 %) and high (50 %) mismatch prevalence. Like the low-prevalence effect in visual search, we observed inflated miss rates under low-prevalence conditions. This effect persisted when participants were allowed to correct their initial responses (Experiment 2), when they had to verify every decision with a certainty judgment (Experiment 3) and when they were permitted "second looks" at face pairs (Experiment 4). These results suggest that, under realistic viewing conditions, the low-prevalence effect in face matching is a large, persistent source of errors.

Keywords Unfamiliar face matching . Low-prevalence effect . Signal detection

Infrequent identity mismatches are frequently undetected

In August 2012, an amusing story was reported regarding a tour bus in Iceland (Recinto, 2012). After the bus made one of its scheduled stops, a woman (described as "Asian, about 160 cm tall, speaks English well") had apparently gone miss- ing, having stepped off the bus and never returned. This initiated an intense search that lasted an entire weekend, with approximately 50 people (both tour passengers and police) searching the area, and a helicopter standing by. As it turned out, one of the searchers was the "missing" woman herself! During the tour stop, she had changed her clothes and rejoined the tour, but nobody recognized her. After 2 days of searching, she ultimately realized that the description of the missing woman may have referred to her, and she reported herself "found." This anecdote demonstrates the unique challenge of unfamiliar face matching, which is difficult when two photos are compared (e.g., Megreya & Burton, 2008) and may reduce to guesswork when the given information is a crude sketch or vague description. In the present study, we examined the former case-matching two different photos of the same person-with special focus on the ability of people to detect mismatching faces (e.g., fake IDs) when they rarely occur.

The ability to match faces to photographs bears critically on everyday legal and security concerns. The to-be-matched individual is typically unfamiliar to the person verifying their documents, as when customs agents check passports for hun- dreds of travelers. In such circumstances, however, face-to- photo matching has proven quite fallible. Under optimal viewing conditions in the laboratory, face matching is surpris- ingly error prone, with error rates between 10 % and 20 % (Bindemann, Avetisyan, & Blackwell, 2010;Megreya, Bindemann, & Havard, 2011). More naturalistic studies have documented even poorer performance (Kemp, Towell, & Pike, 1997), suggesting that error rates in applied situations may be alarmingly high.

When individuals encounter familiar faces (i.e., individuals with whom we have prior perceptual experience; Hancock, Bruce, & Burton, 2000), they are able to quickly and accu- rately identify them, despite large perceptual and contextual changes, such as changes in lighting, viewpoints, or facial hair (Burton, Wilson, Cowan, & Bruce, 1999). These perceptual compensations do not typically extend to unfamiliar faces. …

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