Cognitive Daily

Face-composite software is commonly used to generate images of crime suspects. But how accurate is it? We’ve reported here on a study suggesting that building face-composites may actually harm the memory of eyewitnesses. Now a new review article is suggesting that there are additional problems with the system:

Facial composite systems produce a poor likeness of the intended face. For instance, studies in which individuals attempt to create composites of celebrities have yielded extremely poor results. In one particular study, only 2.8 percent of participants correctly named a well-known celebrity that had been created by other participants using the face-composite software. In a separate study, participants were unable to discriminate composites of their classmates from composites of students at entirely different schools.

So not only do face-composite systems impact the memory of eyewitnesses, they also don’t appear to offer much help in identifying suspects. And there are additional problems:

Analyses of the first 180 DNA exonerations to occur in the United States revealed that mistaken eyewitness testimony was involved in 75percent of the cases. Guilty suspects may likewise be comforted or encouraged by poor composites poor composites that lead crime investigators towards innocent parties, says Wells. “Imagine the solace of the culprit who sees a composite of his face in the newspaper that looks nothing like his face.”

In light of the strong evidence against the usefulness of composites, combined with evidence of potential harm, I’d be interested to see arguments in favor of the system. Does it have any redeeming qualities?

(via Omni Brain, which may have identified a better use for face composites: building silly-looking faces)


  1. #1 Benjamin Kaplin
    February 12, 2007

    We might want to investigate the Mii system for this. Judging from my friends’ and my success at creating recognizable representations quickly, the cartoon/exaggeration of the Mii creation system might adapt pretty readily to criminal identification.

  2. #2 David Group
    February 13, 2007

    Some of the facial reconstructions published in newspapers are so vague and generic, they are virtually useless. Here in Buffalo, we have a case of a man who has been in jail for 25 years for two rapes that are now believed to be the work of a serial rapist/killer who was recently captured. Back in the early ’80s, they looked very similar to each other.

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