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York Scientists Back Met. Police Super-recognisers

Posted on 1 March 2016

Psychologists at the University of York Department of Psychology have concluded that officers in an elite face recognition squad in the Metropolitan Police possess extraordinary powers of perception.

While the so called ‘super-recognisers’ are known for never forgetting a face; the researchers reveal that they also outperform the average individual when asked to match two photos of a person they have never met.

The study suggests that the recruitment of super-recognisers (SRs), pioneered by the Met Police, should be rolled out in forces across the country, and that national security could be enhanced by employing these extraordinary perceivers at the passport office and at border control.

The team carried out three tests of face recognition. The first was a standardised test of unfamiliar face matching called the Glasgow Face Matching test (GFMT)

The second was an unfamiliar face matching test using Models Face Matching (MFMT) that was designed to be particularly difficult. The final test used the Pixelated Lookalikes Test (PLT)- a new test of familiar face recognition based on very poor quality images.

The first test results revealed that average error rates in the comparison group (a group of police trainees) reached 19 per cent, while average error rates for the super recognisers  fell to just four per cent, with one officer reaching perfect levels of performance.

In the two other tests, the super recognisers again scored significantly fewer errors compared to the control group.

The findings have been published in the journal PLOS ONE

Dr David Robertson, from York’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, said: “This group of super-recognisers had been selected as a result of their remarkable level of success in recognising images of criminal offenders.

“However, it was not clear whether their ability was restricted to the recognition of new images of repeat local offenders with whom they were familiar, or whether it would generalise to matching face photos of people they were completely unfamiliar with.”

Co- author, Professor Mike Burton, head of the York FaceVar Lab, added: “Across three experiments using both unfamiliar and familiar faces in both easy and difficult viewing conditions, the Met Police super-recognisers consistently outperformed the control groups.

“These results also support the wider recruitment of SRs in other police forces and in agencies such as the passport office and border control in which accurate unfamiliar face matching is a vital to the nation’s security.”

The team, including Dr. Rob Jenkins and PhD student Eilidh Noyes, added their thanks to DCI Mick Neville, who leads the super-recogniser unit, for approving the study and to Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe for providing permission to publish the findings.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n.323262, and from the Economic and Social Research Council, UK (ES/J022950/1).