Unfamiliar Face Perception

A. Mike Burton and Rob Jenkins

in Oxford Handbook of Face Perception

Published in print July 2011 | ISBN: 9780199559053
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

Unfamiliar Face Perception


This article describes some differences between familiar and unfamiliar face processing. It presents the evidence that unfamiliar face recognition is poor. Since this poor performance has implications both practically and theoretically, it is important to establish the facts. The article analyses reasons that people appear to have little insight into their own poor performance with unfamiliar faces, and some sectors of society seem so keen to use faces as a means of proving identity. It reviews some historical research comparing familiar and unfamiliar face processing. The study shows evidence for the assertion that despite eliminating the memory-load of normal eyewitness situations, it turns out that people are surprisingly bad at matching two images of the same unfamiliar person. Finally, it suggests that the modern tendency to conflate familiar and unfamiliar face processing, and to theorize about “face recognition” in general, lies at the heart of practical failures in this field.

Keywords: unfamiliar face processing; face recognition; identity; eyewitness situations; memory-load

Article.  8983 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology

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