In this article, Oliver Sacks talks about his extreme difficulty in recognizing people (even close friends) and places (even extremely familiar locations such as his apartment and his office).
After reading this, I started to wonder if I have a very mild case of face-blindness. I’m very good at recognizing places, but I’m not good at faces. And I can’t really visualize faces at all. Like Sacks and some of his correspondents, I often have to do it by cheating, by recognizing certain landmarks that I can remember, thus coding the face linguistically rather than visually. (On the other hand, when thinking about mathematics or statistics, I’m very visual, as readers of this blog can attest.)
Anyway, in searching for the link to Sacks’s article, I came across the “Cambridge Face Memory Test.”
My reaction when taking this test was mostly irritation. I just found it annoying to stare at all these unadorned faces, and in my attempt to memorize them, I was trying to use tricks (keeping track of the skinny face, the scowling face, the jowly face, etc.). It wasn’t really clear to me whether I was supposed to try to use these sort of gimmicks or whether that was cheating, whether I was supposed to just look at the faces as if it were in a normal situation. The test seemed so artificial. But, really, I guess it’s no more artificial then tests in general (including the ones that I administer in my own classes!).
Here are my results form the test:
Out of 72 faces, you correctly identified 42. In other words, you got 58% correct.
On our previous version of this test, the average person with normal face recognition was able to recognize about 80% of the faces. If you correctly identified less than 65% of the faces, this may indicate face recognition difficulties.
Near the end, I gotta say that I was finding the test so irritating and boring that I just started to click through as fast as I could. On the other hand, my irritation was probably not “exogenous,” as the economists would say. If I were good at face recognition, maybe the test would’ve been mildly enjoyable.
P.S. Maybe the police should give this test to witnesses who are asked to identify a criminal suspect in a lineup. I certainly wouldn’t want somebody thrown into jail based on my eyewitness testimony! I’ve read a lot of criticisms of police lineups but only now have I realized that it might be possible to identify more or less accurate eyewitnesses. In fact, before reading Sacks’s article, I’d never thought of face recognition as a talent that some people have more of than others. I mean, sure, I knew that some people can recognize a lot of people, but I’d just thought of it as something that they did, not as a skill.
P.P.S. Just to be clear: I can recognize lot’s of people’s faces. I’m nothing like the way Sacks describes himself. But I felt that I have a little of this trait.
P.P.P.S. Sam Anthony writes in:
I was pleased to see you mention my boss Ken Nakayama’s prosopagnosia test on your blog. I’m sorry (but not too surprised) you found it so excruciating; the irritation inherent in being asked to repeatedly perform a nearly impossible task is an unfortunate side effect of many perception experiments. We’re currently working with a statistical researcher who is experienced with standardized testing to quantify the per-trial discriminative power and (hopefully) shorten the test, in part because the experience can be such an unpleasant one for the prosopagnosic.
If you’re curious enough about your own face recognition abilities that you want a more informative number, and you’re willing to subject yourself to the experience again, we have a much better-normed (but not shorter) version of the test (using real faces) online that I could point you to, but needless to say I understand where you’re coming from if you aren’t so interested in that.
Thanks for the note. I imagine I would’ve taken the test more seriously had it been in a clinical setting rather than just something I did out of curiosity when writing a blog. So I wasn’t complaining about the test, just sharing my reaction with others. I think we tend when evaluating research to think of our measuring instruments from the perspective of the researcher rather than the perspective of the experimental subject, hence it seemed worth trying it out. In any case, I’m glad you’re working on improving the psychometric properties of your exam. I wish I could say we do as well with our own exams in the classes we teach!