Face recognition

How good are you at recognising faces? It might be easy picking out familiar ones such as close relatives, friends and celebrities – but when it comes to recognising strangers we’ve only seen briefly, the risk of error increases.

In the 1970s there was growing concern about cases where eyewitness accounts had led to wrongful convictions. A government enquiry was chaired by Lord Devlin and reported in 1976, summarising several cases where sincere and credible witnesses proved badly wrong when picking out perpetrators from photographs or police line-ups. These findings sparked new psychological research into eyewitness testimony - in particular recall and recognition of faces.

The UK was also at the forefront of theoretical and technical developments that helped shape and grow worldwide interest in the wider topic of face recognition. Initiatives such as the ESRC-funded networking seminars and the UK-wide Face Recognition Programme in the 1980s provided valuable knowledge about how and why we succeed or fail in recognising faces.

Subsequent research has changed the way images are used by the police, helped witnesses in recalling and describing faces, and supported work on identification parade compositions and facial composition techniques. It has also highlighted important shortcomings in the use of CCTV images and personal identity photographs. Matching, as well as remembering, the faces of strangers is prone to error.