Recognition of the Ageing Face

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Faculty of Natural Sciences


We can recognise the faces of our friends and family across a huge range of conditions. However, despite decades of research, we still do not know how this is achieved. One clue - so far unstudied - arises from our perception of faces as they age. For those around us, we typically only notice face changes when shown an old picture. For famous people, some have spent a lifetime in the public eye (The Queen, Paul McCartney); whereas others are famous for more limited times periods (Angela Merkel, Meghan Markle). How do we represent these people in order to recognise them? In this project, I will study the psychological mechanisms that allow us to recognise the same face across substantial changes. For example, do we need multiple representations of The Queen or Paul McCartney, or have we somehow developed representations of them that are sufficiently general to work across the huge range of their photos? For people known over a more limited time, how well do our representations generalise? Could we recognise Mrs Merkel at 20? In these ways I will study the fundamental processes of face recognition - how do we recognise one another? However, I will be taking advantage of natural changes that occur around us throughout life - changes that are typically ignored in face recognition research, but which I believe could provide critical evidence.

Changes over time are also a problem for unfamiliar face processing. For example, our passports can be up to ten years old, and yet a viewer checking our identity must nevertheless make the match. It has been known for many years that unfamiliar face matching is difficult, and it becomes more difficult with larger time intervals between photos. In this project, I will study this problem, and establish the circumstances under which unfamiliar face recognition is prone to age changes, and how this is mitigated by the method of presentation (for example, should a younger image be presented before an older image?). We know that some people are particularly good at unfamiliar face matching - people known as super-recognisers are employed in some police and security settings. However, we do not know whether these people are especially good at generalising photos across age ranges. I will test this, and use the results to establish recommendations for selection and training of personnel in these key roles.

In summary, the project examines face recognition across changes in age, using this natural process as an opportunity to gain understanding of a fundamental human ability - our ability to recognise one another.

Planned Impact

The findings from this research will shed new light on our mental representations of faces and examine the face-matching abilities of super-recognisers and typical observers when images of the same face differ in age. This research will therefore benefit stakeholders across a wide range of settings: (a) the use of photo ID in security settings; (b) missing persons, policing and the justice system; (c) charities working with older adults and their families; and (d) the general public.

(a) The use of photo ID in security settings

This research aims to improve the use of photo ID when there is an age gap between images by examining factors that affect the ability to recognise two different images of the same person. This is important for national security, such as ensuring photographs attached to passport applications match their holder: HM Passport Office receives 5,000,000 applications for new passports every year with many applications being to renew passports. The proposed research will test whether the age range and order of images helps or hinders unfamiliar face matching. The research will also look at individuals' differences and how super-recognisers (people with above average face recognition abilities) perform in extremely challenging circumstances. This information will be useful for personnel selection and procedures used in security settings. Recruiting super-recognisers might be one way to reduce fraud, if it can be shown that this group excels at unfamiliar face matching despite ageing. Super-recognisers are already working in some applied settings, such as the Metropolitan Police, with promising results.

(b) Missing persons, policing and the justice system

Successful person identification despite facial ageing is relied upon in a range of contexts, such as finding missing persons or identifying a suspect in old CCTV footage. This research will benefit families and police officers trying to locate people who have been missing for many years. The range of images a family chooses to release to the media for publicity might increase the chance that a person is recognised. The present research will also benefit law enforcement officers by advancing our understanding of the abilities of typical observers and super-recognisers when there is time gap between a suspect's past and present appearance. Evidence provided by the general population and super-recognisers is used in criminal investigations. If it is found that super-recognisers, like the general population, are prone to error in challenging circumstances involving recognising an ageing face, their testimony should be treated with caution; conversely, if super-recognisers perform well, more weight might be given to their evidence.

(c) Charities working with older adults and their families.

The Alzheimer's Society (2017) suggests there are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK. Face recognition impairments associated with this disorder can be distressing for the person with dementia, and also their family and friends. This research seeks better to understand representations of familiar faces in healthy older adults. Improved understanding of the profile of face perception in healthy ageing will therefore inform future research investigating impairments associated with different forms of dementia (e.g. diagnosis, sub-types, and treatment).

(d) General public

The general public is an important beneficiary of this research. This research will be disseminated to the general public through a series of planned events. Media engagement and the project website will also raise public access to research findings and implications. It is also expected that the public will benefit as a consequence of (a), (b) and (c) e.g. due to increased national security.


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