Mixing Memory

Cool Visual Illusions: The Tony Blair Illusion

Everybody knows the Margaret Thatcher Illusion. If you’ve forgotten about it, here’s the best example I’ve found (from Schwaninger et al.1)



Both the top and bottom pairs are the same photos, but they look very different depending on whether they’re upright or inverted. In the top pair (the inverted ones), the face on the left is normal, and the face on the right has inverted eyes and mouth. Since they’re upside down, though, both look pretty normal. When you flip ’em over, though, the face with the inverted eyes and mouth looks, well, gross.

Aside from being just plain cool, this illusion actually has some important theoretical implications. By the time this illusion was first published by Peter Thompson in 1980(2), researchers were well aware that people had trouble processing upside-down faces, but they weren’t sure why. By understanding the Margaret Thatcher illusion, they were able to figure out key pieces of the inverted-face puzzle, and thus the face-processing puzzle in general.

Basically, what the Margaret Thatcher illusion taught us was that we process faces using both local features (e.g., the nose or the eyes) and their configurations. When faces are inverted, the configural information is altered, so we just look at the local features. Because the inverted features don’t look all that different on the upside-down faces, we don’t really notice a problem. But when the faces are right-side-up, we can process the configural information, and so the inverted mouth and eyes look weird.

Another way to make face processing more difficult is to present the negatives of faces, as in this oh, let’s say randomly chosen example (from Antis, 2005, figure 1a 3):


You all probably recognize this face, because the guy’s name is in the post’s title, but it’s more difficult to recognize this than a normal face. Why? Probably because the negative makes it more difficult to process the local features. The shape’s are distorted, so things just don’t look quite right, even though the configural information is basically the same.

If that’s the case, then perhaps negative faces provide a nice analog to inverted faces. And if that’s the case, then maybe you can get an illusion analogous to the Thatcher illusion with negatives. And that’s just what Stuart Antis did to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Thatcher illusion. Here’s what he got:


Again, these two pairs of faces are the same, except the top two are negatives. The one on the top-left (a) is the pure negative, which Antis describes as being “analogous to an upside-down face.” The one on the top-right (b) is negative except for the eyes and teeth, which are positive. This is analogous to the “Thatcherized” face (the one with the inverted mouth and eyes). The bottom two faces were created by reversing the contrast of the top two faces. Thus the bottom-left face (c) is normal, and the bottom-right face (d) is normal except for negative teeth and yes. Now the contrast between the positive face with two negative features makes for a hideous, zombie-like ex-PM (I keep waiting for lightning bolts to come out of his eyes), not unlike the upright Thatcherized face in its grotesqueness. And that’s the Tony Blair illusion.

I’m not exactly sure what causes this, though I suspect it has something to do with our old friends configural and local information. Perhaps exploring the Tony Blair illusion will provide insight into basic face processing, just as the Margaret Thatcher illusion did.

1Schwaninger, A., Carbon, C.C., & Leder, H. (2003). Expert face processing: Specialization and constraints. In G. Schwarzer & H. Leder (Eds.), Development of Face Processing, pp. 81-97. Göttingen: Hogrefe.
2Thompson, P. (1980). Margaret Thatcher: a new illusion. Perception, 9,483-484.
3Anstis, S.M. (2005). Homage to Pete Thompson: The Tony Blair illusion. Perception, 34, 1417.


  1. #1 G Barnett
    September 19, 2007

    Actually, in the right-hand pair, the hair has also been inverted, in addition to the eyes and mouth.

    I suspect the creepy white hair adds to the whole zombie effect as well….

  2. #2 The Ridger
    September 19, 2007

    Oddly, the B – negative with positive eyes, teeth, and hair, is pretty easy to recognize as Blair.

  3. #3 Ian Kemmish
    September 19, 2007

    Pictures like this will be very familiar to print shop workers, who spend much of their working lives looking at colour-separated images (or they did until computers took everything over). If you plan to do any research on this, I’d recommend including a few test subjects from that population. B looks like a yellow plate to me, for example.

  4. #4 Richard
    September 19, 2007

    I’m not sure about the analogy — it seems to me that the “Tony Blair illusion” is wholly due to negativized teeth and eyes being inherently gross. I think (b) actually looks better than (a), for example, unlike in the rotated case.

  5. #5 Steve Matsukawa
    September 20, 2007

    It seems that the positive image is the false one and the one with the negative teeth, eyes and hair is what really Tony Blair looks like. We the public have been deceived all this time by photo manipulators and Adobe Photoshop.

    I wonder what dubyah really looks like, are his horns being airbrushed out?

  6. #6 Tanasije Gjorgoski
    September 20, 2007

    I agree with Steve,

    In the original “Tacherized” face some of the features are not rotated along with the image. So the analogy here would be that some parts are in negative and some are not.
    But, this is problematic in the Blair case, as image (b) could be much easily interpreted not as a result of a negative, but as Tony Blair spending too much time in a solarium.
    That is, while in the Tacher case it is clear that it is case of rotation, in case of I don’t think it is clear what the transformation is.

    Because of this I agree with Ian, and I think to have proper results one should get people who work with negatives all the time. As they would be one most inclined to interpret (b) as a negative.

  7. #7 Chris
    September 20, 2007

    Tanasije, I’ve gone back and forth on the question of whether it’s a true analog of the Thatcher illusion. On the one hand, the mapping is consistent:


    So the negative face is like the upside down face, and the negative face with positive features is like the upside down face with inverted (and thus upright) features. But there are differences. For example, the negative face with positive features is, as some people have noted, actually more Blair-like than the purely negative face. The upside-down face with inverted features is, though fairly normal looking, still less normal than the upside-down face with normal features.

    Still, I think there’s something to the illusion itself. Specifically, I think the fact that Blair is more recognizable in negative when some of the features are positive could potentially be theoretically relevant.

  8. #8 John
    September 22, 2007

    I don’t think the parallel with the Thatcher illusion is so great.

    It’s worth noting, for example, that we’re used to seeing people’s skin and hair change color. For example, as people age, their hair whitens, so both in general and in particular, we’re accustomed to view white hair (=Blair’s negative hair) as normal. Likewise, people tan, burn, or get dirty, so changing – and especially darkening – skin color (again = Blair’s negative skin) is also a normal thing. Also consider the case of people at night, where the more reflective teeth and eyes stand out from the darker skin and hair, so that again, image b is a nearly normal-looking picture, just of someone in the dark.

    It might therefore be worthwhile to consider images of people in low light.

    Additionally, we see in color, so looking at these photos in B&W isn’t quite fair when the thing you’re trying to study involves changing brightness and contrast, is it?

    One might also consider that research of several years ago now on recognition of faces with changed features, like facial hair. IIRC, women were better at recognizing faces they knew, despite certain changes. This suggests that something more complex is going on when faces are basically normal looking, but normal-type changes are made (as in hair color).

    (And is no one going to note that Blair b looks like he’s wearing blackface?)

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