Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Effects of Distance on Face Recognition: Implications for Eyewitness Identification

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Effects of Distance on Face Recognition: Implications for Eyewitness Identification

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 May 2014

(Q> Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Eyewitnesses sometimes view faces from a distance, but little research has examined the accuracy of witnesses as a function of distance. The purpose to the present project is to examine the relationship between identification accuracy and distance under carefully controlled conditions. This is one of the first studies to examine the ability to recognize faces of strangers at a distance under free-field conditions. Participants viewed eight live human targets, displayed at one of six outdoor distances that varied between 5 and 40 yards. Participants were shown 16 photographs, 8 of the previously viewed targets and 8 of nonviewed foils that matched a verbal description of the target counterpart. Participants rated their confidence of having seen or not having seen each individual on an 8-point scale. Long distances were associated with poor recognition memory and response bias shifts.

Keywords Distance . Eyewitness memory . Face perception . Face perception and recognition . Face recognition

Eyewitness identification plays a crucial role in approximately 80,000 criminal cases per year in the United States (Wells et al., 1998). However, research suggests that eyewitness identification can be subject to substantial error (Lampinen, Neuschatz, & Cling, 2012). Field studies have found that 30 %-40 % of identifications are identifications of innocent fillers (Slater, 1994, 37.93 %; Valentine, Pickering, & Darling, 2003, 30.16 %; Wells, Steblay, & Dysart, 2011, 41 %; Wright & McDaid, 1996, 33.73 %). Data from the innocence project indicate that approximately 75 % of all DNA exoneration cases involve a mistaken identification, often from more than one witness (Innocence Project, 2012). Many eyewitness events involve viewing conditions that are impoverished (poor lighting, long distances) or occur for a brief duration. Yet very few empirical studies have directly examined face recognition as a function of these situational variables. The purpose of the present project is to examine the effects of distance on face recognition under carefully controlled conditions.

Distance and face recognition

Percipient witnesses are sometimes a great distance away when they observe criminal activities. For instance, Loftus and Harley (2005) described a case in Fairbanks Alaska in which a witness made an identification after viewing an event from 450 feet away. Basic knowledge ofthe human perceptual system suggests that long distances such as this will be asso- ciated with impaired recognition (Lampinen et al., 2012). At increasing distances, the size of the visual image on the retina decreases, causing face recognition to depend increasingly on lower spatial frequencies, whereas high spatial frequency details will no longer be resolvable (Loftus & Harley, 2005). Because optimal face recognition depends upon both high and low spatial frequency bands (Goffaux, Hault, Michel, Vuong, & Rossion, 2005), this implies that greater distances will be associated with progressively worse recognition.

In one of the few studies that have attempted to address the effect of distance on identification accuracy, Wagenaar and Van der Schrier (1996) provided participants with pictures of faces that were sized so as to approximate the visual angle that would be produced by an actual face viewed at various dis- tances. Each image was displayed for 12 s, and after each image, the participant was shown a target-present or -absent lineup. Wagenaar and Van der Schrier found that there was an abrupt decline in recognition at distances over 15 m. In another study, Loftus and Harley (2005) used photographs of celebrities that had been resized or low-pass filtered to mimic the perceptual experience of viewing a face at various distances. Participants were shown images that were gradually increased in size, or gradually deblurred, until they could name the celebrity. …

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