Researchers earmark unique hack for better human face recognition

By Melissa Coade

Sunday December 19, 2021

jigsaw-face
Manual facial recognition can be improved by as much as 6%. (Valery Bareta/Adobe)

Accurately verifying a person is who they say they are by comparing their face to official forms of ID can be improved by as much as 6%, according to a new study by UNSW researchers.

According to the study, as many as one in two experienced face-identification staff can get their ID attempts wrong when trying to verify an unfamiliar face. This fail-rate can have serious consequences for the daily work of border security officials, police, security staff and forensic scientists.

But a team of Australian psychology researchers have developed a new training method that teaches people how to more accurately identify faces – by doing the opposite of what human brains are inclined to do when processing a human face. 

Lead researcher Dr Alice Towler said the trick was to compare more discrete parts of a person’s face, such as the ears and facial markings like moles, freckles and scars.

“Rather than focus on the face holistically,  participants were directed to look at two specific areas of the face that turned out to be the strongest diagnostic features,” Towler said.

“It turns out that breaking up a face into parts – like a jigsaw – is a useful strategy when matching unfamiliar faces. This is something that only a small number of face-recognition professionals have been trained to do.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, describes a short online training course that has been designed to teach people this facial-recognition technique. It is hoped to lift accuracy rates for those who need to verify driver licenses and passport photos as part of their job, and a number of local and international organisations are looking at adopting the diagnostic feature training. 

The training program was developed on the basis of the group’s 2017 findings, which examined the techniques of professional facial examiners – a small group of specialist staff who prepare face-identification evidence for court.

From their observations of the group, the researchers found that professional facial examiners undertook a slow, careful analysis of similarities and differences in individual facial features. 

This approach was learned during on-the-job training over several months or even years, in stark contrast to the majority of others who use face identification for their jobs and complete much shorter training courses that range from only one hour to five days. Dr Towler and her colleagues’ previous research shows these courses are not very effective.

“The ears and facial marks contain the most identity information of all the facial features,” Towler said. 

“Our analysis of the facial examiners’ skills revealed that they are onto something. 

“It is very important that courses aiming to boost face recognition skills are evidence-based and don’t overstate their effectiveness by relying on the testimonials of their participants,” she added.


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