What are Super-Recognisers?
Super-recognisers are individuals who are exceptionally good at recognising faces.
The ability seems to be mainly face-specific in that with most super-recognisers, superior skills do not necessarily transfer to other visual (e.g. object recognition) or cognitive abilities (intelligence). Currently, there is no evidence that super-recognisers are qualitatively different from the general population – in other words, there is no indication that their brains are somehow wired differently. Instead, their abilities appear to be at the extreme top end of a large spectrum of individual differences in face recognition ability. Developmental prosopagnosics (individuals who struggle to even recognise close acquaintances) appear to inhabit the bottom end.
Like many human and physical characteristics, this ability range may be normally distributed (bell-shaped), and there is evidence suggesting that face recognition ability is inherited, although it is also dependent on experiential factors (e.g. exposure to different types of faces).
How common is Super-Recognition?
There is no standard definition or threshold above which someone is classified as a super-recogniser. Researchers have tended to use scores two standard deviations above a control mean on tests (suggesting 2% of the population may be super-recognisers).
In our research, we've found that only a minority of people who score in the top 2% range on the most common tests employed in research (e.g. Cambridge Face Memory Test: Extended: Russell et al., 2009) perform at that level on all tests suggesting that 'true' super-recognisers comprise a smaller proportion of the population. Because of this, when working with police or business we have often employed a large battery of tests. However, relatively poor performance on one test in a battery does not necessarily imply lower ability, as there may be a multitude of factors involved (fatigue, distractions, misunderstanding test requirements etc.), that are nothing to do with face recognition. Furthermore, in the ‘real world’ people use more cues to assess identity than faces alone (e.g., gait, full body, voice), and therefore tests will always only be a rough marker of ability. Indeed, it is unlikely any test or combination of tests, however, designed, will ever be able to perfectly predict super-recogniser performance in most workplaces. Day-to-day deployment and personal motivations will always influence the performance of even the most skilled individual in any job role.
In addition, in some individuals there does seem to be a dissociation between face recognition ability and simultaneous face matching ability. Some people are exceptional at one but not the other – some are excellent at both. This supports theories suggesting that face perception and face memory are supported by different cognitive systems.
More on Super-Recognisers
Here are some videos in which Josh Davis describes Super-Recognisers, their abilities and how they can be utilized.