AFC Lab in the Washington Post

Meike was interviewed by Marlene Cimons from the Washington Post, in a nice piece about Super-Recognizers (SRs).

Meike Ramon
30 Oct 2021

I'm glad to see that interest is rising in the USA for our research topic and thank Marlene Cimons for her interest and for the opportunity of contributing to her Washington Post article.

Publishing a piece in the media is not a single-person operation, so it's no surprise that it changes with various people revising the text before it is ultimately published.

The article provides some information that I would like to correct:

  • Falsehood #1: "Super-recognizers never forget a face."

This statement is an exaggeration and is not supported by empirical evidence. Like any of us, Super-Recognizers are not infallible. What does make them special is their extreme proficiency in face identity processing** relative to the rest of the population.

  • Falsehood #2: "They need to focus on it only once to instantly recognize it again, even if they encounter it years later, and sometimes even if they see only one feature, such as the eyes."

This statement is scientifically impossible to falsify or validate. Super-Recognizers' ability to recognize individuals years later relies on self-reported anecdotes, where it is impossible to quantify how much information the person had in fact processed and for how long.

  • Falsehood #3: "Super-recognizers belong to an elite group..."

Perhaps not a demonstrable falsehood, this is at the very least a point of contention.

As a scientist, I find it inappropriate to refer to any phenomenon or group of individuals as "elite" concerning intrinsic, unlearned abilities. If someone considers people on the high-performing side of a naturally occurring ability spectrum as "elite", what label is given to those on the other side?

All athletes have a natural ability, but this is unlikely enough to win olympic gold. Ability + effort can produce elite athletes.

  • Falsehood #4: "... experts estimate their numbers at less than 2 percent of the population"

This presents a number that is not supported by any evidence. Estimating the actual prevalence would require the following:

1) An accepted definition of what Super-Recognizers are, and which tests should be used to identify them. For this, there is currently no consensus.

2) Certainty that individuals identified as Super-Recognizers are in fact reliably superior, i.e. they didn't just try very hard on the test(s) used to identify them. For this, we need several studies involving the same individuals.

3) Random sampling of participants.

Study recruitment always involves voluntary participation. This comes with inevitable selection bias - people tend not to participate in studies measuring things they are not good at. I have never participated in an athletics experiment. Even if one were to force participation, this would not guarantee performance that reflects true ability. Being forced to sprint at school did not compel me to perform well.

You can read the full Washington Post article here. Image credit: Washington Post

** This can include superiority in terms of perception or recognition of facial identity. I explain this here.