Super-recognizers: people with an amazing ability to recognize faces

How many of these faces can you recognize?


ResearchBlogging.orgEven though these are extremely famous individuals, it's unlikely that you'll be able to identify all four of them, because the pictures were taken early in life, before they became famous. But give it your best shot and try to name them in the comments. I'll reveal the correct answers later today.

We know that there are some individuals who have great difficulty identifying even current photos of very famous people, and often can't identify the faces of close friends or family members. This condition, called prosopagnosia, was once thought to be rare, but more recent estimates put its incidence at as high as 2.5 percent of the population. If this many people experience prosopagnosia, can we really call it a disorder? Perhaps some people are simply better than others at recognizing faces.

If this was the case, however, we would also expect that there are some people who are exceptionally good at recognizing faces, and for many years it seemed that no such people existed. But now a team of researchers led by Richard Russell has found several people they call "super-recognizers," who have an amazing ability to recognize faces. One of these people, whose initials are C.S., says "it doesn't matter how many years pass, if I've seen your face before I will be able to recall it." In fact, she sometimes pretends she doesn't remember a person, "because it seems like I stalk them, or that they mean more to me than they do when I recall that we saw each other once walking on campus four years ago in front of the quad!"

Russell's team showed photos of 56 famous people before they were famous to these four individuals, and also to 25 people with normal face recognition ability. The super-recognizers identified more faces than any of the other respondents. But the "before they were famous" test has some problems. Test takers might have seen photos of the famous people early in life, or they might have never heard of the famous people in question.

So in a new experiment, volunteers (and the four super-recognizers) were trained to recognize a set of six non-famous faces. Then they shown different photos of the same individual, some of which were obscured with visual noise, along with distractor images of people they had never seen. For each of these images, they indicated whether they had seen the face before. As before, the super-recognizers performed significantly better. This graph shows the scores of each group on both tests:


The black squares show the scores of the super-recognizers and their initials; the other volunteers are represented by gray diamonds. The super-recognizers scored better than all the normal volunteers on both tests. Three of the super-recognizers took a third, even more difficult test and again fared better than everyone else.

But what is at the root of the super-recognizers' special ability? One possibility is that rather than having superior memory, they are actually better at recognizing differences between faces. In a new experiment, volunteers and the super-recognizers completed a different task. They were shown eight sets of faces like this:


The six faces at the bottom are computer-altered versions of the face at the top. Each face has been changed a different amount by morphing the original with a different face. So in one case, the face might be 88 percent original, and 12 percent different, while in another only 40 percent of the original face is represented, while the morphed face accounts for 60 percent of its features. The task is to sort the faces in order of similarity to the original face. No memory is involved, just recognition. The task was completed both with the faces right-side-up and upside-down.

The test was also given to prosopagnosics, who show little difference in success rates: they perform equally badly whether the faces are upside-down or right-side-up. On this task, the super-recognizers were significantly better than both the normal volunteers and the prosopagnosics, as long as the faces were upright. When the faces were inverted, there was no significant difference between the super-recognizers and any other group, including prosopagnosics.

The researchers say these results suggest that there is a continuum of face-recognition ability. Prosopagnosia isn't a "disorder," it's just one end of a spectrum of abilities capped off by the uncanny ability of super-recognizers to identify and categorize faces.

How common is super-recognition? This study can't tell us, but given the fact that all the super-recognizers in this study say they often don't fess up to their ability, It's quite possible that a sizable number of people are highly adept at recognizing faces.

Are you a super-recognizer? If you can identify the four photos at the beginning of this post, you just might be. Post your guesses in the comments.

Russell, R., Duchaine, B., & Nakayama, K. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 (2), 252-257 DOI: 10.3758/PBR.16.2.252

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I'm not sure about #1 - that one's just a guess. But I know the others.

1: Nelson Mandela
2: Bill Clinton
3: Don't know her name, but she was in Lost in Translation
4: John Wayne

1 - Denzel Washington
2 - Bill Clinton
3 - Drew Barrymore
4 - John Wayne

I'm with Koka, mostly, but I'm going to say

1. Malcom X (back before the X?)
2. Bill Clinton
3. Scarlett Johansson
4. John Wayne

I don't know if I'm a super-recognizer, but I do have a reputation among my friends as being exceptionally good at recognizing faces, such as obscure actors in movies, or matching parents with kids. I've often wondered about this skill and where it might come from. Interesting study!

Joel -- great job, you named them all.

Now anyone want to try their hand at sorting the faces in the last figure? Just guess the order they should go in (e.g. FEDCBA)

I got the same results as Joel Bass (Malcom X, Bill Clinton, Scarlett Johansson, and John Wayne)

Here is my order for the sort task:


I could only get Scarlett Johansson. but then again, I have no clue what Malcom X or John Wayne look like anyway.

I'm gonna go CFABDE.. I sure hope E's the most distant.

Last summer, I encountered a woman who had once worked with my mother. My mother had shown the woman photos of me holding my new-born daughter, (now 24 years old,) and, based upon those pictures, immediately recognized me. She called me by name and asked how my mother and daughter were doing, referring to my daughter, correctly, by name. I was dumbfounded, which she found amusing, telling me she often amazes people with her memory for names and faces. She commented that she had possessed that ability throughout her life. Obviously, a super-recognizer!

By ancientTechie (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

I didn't get Malcolm X and I say CFADBE too.

1. Barack Obama
2. Bill Clinton
3. No idea.
4. John Wayne.

1. Malcolm X
2. Bill Clinton
3. Scarlett Johansen
4. John Wayne

Only guessing on two

2. Bill Clinton
4. Paul Newman

By Cyndi-Marie Myers (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm gonna go with CAFDBE... :)

Scarlett Johansen (sp?) was the only one I could recognize in the first batch, but I had no idea what Malcom X or John Wayne looked like.

I'm pretty bad at remembering people, but it's usually the face/name combo that I have a problem with. I also have this really bad habit of associating a person's clothing/jewelry to remember who they are--rather than their facial features... and of course, have no idea who they are when I see them a day/week later. :P

Johanssen took me no time, but I thought Bill Clinton might have been Julian Moore.


man, I suck. I couldn't guess any of them.

I was once with a colleague, in her mid-thirties, when she was approached by a person who said she had baby-sat my colleague when she was 4 years old. My colleague denied it because she did not want to get involved in lengthy reminiscences, but the woman was quite insistent that she was correct, remembering her name and family details (this all took place in a language I do not understand, so I was giving nothing away).

My colleague had no obvious distinguishing features that would have persisted, and to my eye at least did not look particularly similar to either of her parents.

My problem is the opposite - I sometimes have difficulty in recognising people. I failed miserably on your test.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

Prosopagnosia isn't a "disorder," it's just one end of a spectrum of abilities

Just because it's a spectrum doesn't mean it's not a disorder! Visual ability is a spectrum, too, but that doesn't mean blindness isn't a disorder.

1. Malcolm X

By Puzzleyou (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

1. Billy D. Williams
2. Bill Clinton
3. Scarlett Johansson
4. John Wayne

By Eric James (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

Just because it's a spectrum doesn't mean it's not a disorder!

Damn straight. I would have trouble recognizing my own mother in an unfamiliar context. It is a handicap you could hardly imagine.

By Blind Squirrel FCD (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

I thought the last guy was Joe Scarborough, but I agree and hope the editors used John Wayne instead.

By Art Walker (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

1. Malcomb X (distinctive brows)
2. Bill Clinton (teeth)
3. Scarlett Johansson (distinctive upper lip)
4. John Wayne (long upper lip to lower lip ratio, puffiness under eyes distinctive)

1. Buddy Hackett
2. Cher
3. Captain Lou Albano
4. Herve Villachaise

I feel pretty confident about these. I feel
I am going to win this.

By Confident Amer… (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

'Just because it's a spectrum doesn't mean it's not a disorder!' - as for me it's true. Especially that is very uncomfortable for those, who can't recognize their parents or siblings.
Still this ability can be connected with increased perceptiveness in general, as those exemplary super-recognizers above told not only about recognising faces, but also putting them in wide context.
By the way - if 2.5 per cent have difficulties with recognising it suggest that 2.5 per cent on the top are the super-recognizers.

I got all four like Joel...but here's a question...I've always been told I'm great at recognizing faces -- never forget one -- but I can't remember names for the life of me. I wonder if this is an either/or know, like the urban legend that people either are afraid of snakes or spiders never both?

I got Bill Clinton but thought #4 was Paul Newman. Didn't get 1 or 3.
I have a TERRIBLE time remembering people. It used to make me shy and hesitant to introduce myself, but now I just 'fess up to it right from the get-go; if I encounter someone I know I've met but can't remember their name, I simply tell them "I know we've met, but I have this mental glitch that makes it difficult for me to connect names to faces. Your name was...?" Most of the time people are gracious enough to accept this. I have found that it takes a minimum of three encounters with a new person for the name and face to "stick".
The worst part of it is that, since I have a highly unusual first name, people remember it, so they're quick to say hello to me and I'm standing there going "Uhhhh... hi!" as I frantically try to remember them.

I got all four like Joel...but here's a question...I've always been told I'm great at recognizing faces -- never forget one -- but I can't remember names for the life of me. I wonder if this is an either/or know, like the urban legend that people either are afraid of snakes or spiders never both?

I doubt it. Just think of it this way: if excellent recognition of faces is fairly rare, and excellent remembering of names is also fairly rare, then people who are good at both, unless both are strongly correlated in the brain (which seems naively unlikely to me), then people who are excellent at both are going to be extremely rare.

The only way you'd be like to be good at the other if you are good at one is if the two are governed by the same neural symmetry. I don't believe it's at all likely that there's any sort of "trade-off" going on. Rather just that people who are exceptional in multiple different ways are extremely rare.

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink

I got all 4 faces, John Wayne and Scarlett Johanssen first, then Bill Clinton and finally Malcom X. My face order was CFADBE, like several other responders. Also like them, I have always been told I have this ability, to recognize people at younger ages and to see (and search out) family resemblances. It always bothers me in movies when the actors cast as children bear no similarity at all to those cast as their parents! I am not so good with remembering names, and have to rely on tricks to do this. I think I may have the ability to an exaggerated degree, for example, I am always seeing faces that I feel I recognize, even in a strange new location, or at least commenting on people: "Doesn't he/she really look like Z?" Others I know cannot see the resemblance I mention. I am an artist, and I wonder if this visual recognition is related to artistic talent. Any comments?

By Elisabeth Goodridge (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink


I am terrible at remembering names since I recently moved to the US from Italy. It makes sense as a new name is often a new word to learn to me. But the funny thing is that I also became terrible at remembering faces.

By the way, I heard that G.W. Bush is great at remembering faces/names.

By capthecat (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink

I had a friend tell me a story about the politician Hubert Humphrey. His father attended the 1964 Democratic convention and met Humpfrey for a few minutes, introduced himslelf, shook Humphrey's hand and said he and his wife were big fans. Four year later--and ten-thousand handshakes later for Humphrey, my friends father attended the 1968 convention and upon seeing Humpfrey, approached to re-introduce himself. Humphrey got the first word in saying, "Fred, how have you and Marilyn been?"

My theory is that people with good face memories make for good politicians.

I got the first three. Got stuck on 4, actually went towards Johnny Cash for some reason. I've always had a crazy ability to recognize faces with that age disparity, and my SO seems to have the opposite talent of not recognizing anyone. I'm hopeless with names, landmarks, directions, dates, and other ephemera. I don't know what that means, if anything. If there were a Jeopardy category for facial recognition, I'd be set.

If I remember correctly, the John Wayne picture (if that actually is John Wayne) is from his time as a college football player at the University of Southern California.

I got Bill Clinton and Johannasen... and from the comments found out that I dont know the others.

FCABDE? Got Bill, Scarlett and John Wayne but not Malcolm X

I'm guessing FCADBE.

1. Nat King Cole
2. Bill CLinton
3. Scarlett Johanson
4. don't know

By Debbie Lawrence (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink

I couldn't guess any of them. Of course I have to warn new neighbors that if I don't speak to them in town or the grocery store or whatever it isn't because I am snubbing them it is because, out of context, I have no idea who they are and it will take at least two years of seeing them almost daily before I will be able to.

I knew one #4. SheilaB stated 1 does resemble Billy D. Williams. 2. I have no idea, but from the looks of Bill Clinton, I'd say that it was him. 3. SheilaB-looks like Scarlet Johanson. 4. Definately John Wayne in 1931 or so.

1-C 2-A 3-F 4-B 5-D 6-E

Got all the celebrities, except was wavering between Malcolm X and Denzel Washington. But Denzel Washington played Malcolm X in the Spike Lee biopic. Had CFADBE for the faces, as did others. I've had the experience C.S. talks about, pretending not to recognize a person. But I always thought everybody did that from time to time, not that I was better at remembering faces than others.

Like Elisabeth above, I'm an artist. Typical training in art history courses is memorizing slide images of famous works of art, then learning to generalize from a particular known piece to recognize other (previously unseen) works by the same artist. I was always good at this, but I suspect practice helps a lot, and that being a better than average "recognizer" is something that can be taught.

By David Drake (not verified) on 21 Apr 2009 #permalink


i guessed all right except malcolm X.

Have many people seen that picture of Bill Clinton before or was it actually recognition of him from seeing him as an adult? I thought he was Hayley Mills :)

Besides politicians, recognizers also make great salesmen; almost the same thing I guess.

I'm not a perfect recognizer (3/4), but folks have told me that I have an ability to recognize voices. If I hear an actor or a pol on the tv news, from the other room I can give you the name in the first few words. I am also good at naming a song in the first second or two. So is their an auditory equivalent of super-recognizers?

By Chuck Former (not verified) on 22 Apr 2009 #permalink

Got the last two faces right, would never have picked Clinton (Americans might have an easier time with that one?), and I don't really know Malcolm X so I'm not surprised I couldn't get the first.

Very quick take on the ordering by difference (I supposed to be writing grant proposals...!): CADFBE

By Heraclides (not verified) on 22 Apr 2009 #permalink

Cute. But I couldn't have picked Malcolm X out of a lineup even in his heyday. John Wayne is immortal, that was a 'gimme'. Young Scarlett J looks like half the girls in my son's elementary school (yes, it's that good). And I think you must be kidding about the Clinton pick. I don't think it looks much like him 't'all....


Is the answer Ghostbusters 2?

Dave, I am very curious to know the answer to the last task.

Looks like I got all the faces: X is recognizable by his eyes and that half-sour "I'm uncomfortable" half-smile, Bill Clinton by his cheekbones in relation to his smile, Scarlett recognized by her serious pout and Wayne by his eyes like half-closed (what some people call bedroom eyes) and how he tilts his head.

Actors Jeff and Beau Bridges have that head-tilting characteristic in their body language too. When I saw an actor recently (passing by the TV on my way out) who displayed their same facial expressions and body language but looked very different. I asked my husband if he was related to the Bridges family and he replied, Yeah, that's Jordon Bridges. Some people, especially leaders in any field, develop a distinctive combination of expressions that are unique to them and easy to remember.

1. Martin Luther King
2. Bill Clinton
3. Barack Obama
4. Lyndon Johnson

By Bob Smith (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

1. Malcom X
2. Donald Trump
3. Scarlett Johansen
4. John Wayne

By Karl Patton (not verified) on 02 May 2009 #permalink

Who are Malcolm X and John Wayne? I've heard the names, but don't know practically anything about them... I wish you would pick people who are better known internationally.

I'm going with FCADBE, by the way!

Malcolm X and John Wayne are very well-known internationally. I suspect the reason you don't recognize them is because of your age, not your nationality. John Wayne rose to fame in the 1930s, Malcolm X in the 1960s.

malcom x, bill clinton, obama?, john wayne

By justin lynch (not verified) on 25 May 2009 #permalink

I thought that A. was Malcolm X, B. Bill Clinton, C. was either Elvis Presley, Billy Idol or Scarlett Johansson, and D. John Wayne.


I'm very good at recognizing faces, especially in movies/tv, even if the person has aged 20 years I can usually figure it out. Usually it is one or two specific facial features that triggers my recognition. I'm very good at noticing that person has so and so's eyes, or mouth, or jaw, etc. Is this a useles skill or what type of job is this skill useful for?

1. I was torn between Malcom X and Denzel, but it's the only I'm not certain of since there seem to be features that were "grown into"
2. Bill Clinton
3. Scarlet Johansen
4. John Wayne

I took the Harvard facial recognition test a year or so ago as part of an online study to determine rates of prosopagnosics, and I scored 100%. Count me, also, among those who never forget a face but hardly remember a name. I often space colleagues' and friends' names, even. "Nomagnosia"?

It seems to me that identity

By Nathan Piechocki (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink

Only one I recognized was Scarlet Johansen. This doesn't come as a surprise to me at all.

I generally have trouble recognizing people, in particular men... they all look the same to me. The ability to recognize them strongly depends on where I meet them and where I expect to meet them.

For example, at the workplace I will recognize some guy X among perhaps a dozen colleagues since I know that one of them has to be X and there is enough difference between all of them so that I can establish a positive match with a high probability.

However, should I run into the same person at the mall it becomes extremely unlikely that I'll be able to place him. It's actually likely that he won't even look familiar.

This makes various social encounters highly uncomfortable and puts a big strain on friendships. For example, I would go to a restaurant with a guy-friend and while I ordered food for both of us at the counter, he would try to find and reserve some seats. Unless I kept track of his movements I was subsequently unable to pick him out among the crowd -- lest he would point to himself by waving or I was able to deduce that the only person sitting along must be him.

By Wildflower (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

I am horrible at this. I think I know a person, but I can't place where or how or their name. It's like I know the file is in my brain, I just can't access it. Do they have a name for that? I'd love to see a post on it.

I thought that A. was Malcolm X, B. Bill Clinton, C. was either Elvis Presley, Billy Idol or Scarlett Johansson, and D. John Wayne.

I think hit's interesting that quite a few people seem to think that the third face was that of a man. It's curious because -- in spite of my inability to recognize individual faces -- I have no problem to correctly identify the apparent gender of a person. Makeup (respectively lack thereof), clothing and hairstyle seem to have no effect. To my knowledge I've only failed three times: The people in question where former transsexuals (2 FTMs, 1 MTF) after hormone therapy and facial reconstruction; usually not even that seems to be enough and they just plainly look like ex-man or ex-woman to me.

By Wildflower (not verified) on 25 Jul 2009 #permalink

what are the answers?

Malcom X
Bill Clinton
Scarlett Johannson
John Wayne


All to easy folks.

By rAZORbACK (not verified) on 04 Aug 2009 #permalink

I think it's C, F, A, B, D then E.

I was able to recognise Scarlett Johansonn and bill clinton but I couldnt recognise the other two because I hadnt seen their adult faces at all. Over the years I have started to acknowledge my ability to recognise faces quite well, i have always been curious about the construction of human faces and what makes us so different from each other and how the subtle variations in certain features can give us a unique look. I have also been observing and studying myself and trying to answer the question of what exactly my brain looks for while recognising faces. I think after a year of self-observation, I have come to a conclusion of how I store faces in my brain. I have also noticed that I have an ability with remembering people's names and I feel that the way I store faces in my brain and the way I store words almost seems very identical. If anyone is interested and might find this useful, I'd be happy to help with your research or any sort of studies in the field for free. And if I could get some answers, then that'd be a bonus.

FCADBE starting with the most similarities.

My guesses of the photos:
1)Malcolm X
2)Bill Clinton
3)Scarlett Johannsson
4)John Wayne


I think I may have this super-recognizer ability. It also extends to voices. I have had uncomfortable social situations where I know exactly where I saw some for only a brief moment and I think they wonder if I am fixating on them or something. I can even recognize faces from a significant distance for only a brief second. I wonder if there is any useful application of this ability? Can the ability be tested and quantified?