Research on facial recognition earns national award
Doctoral student Eric Hehman, left, with his adviser, Samuel Gaertner, conducts research on differences in how well people remember faces they've seen once before.
Research participants were shown photos of eight faces at a time, some grouped by race and some identified (as shown here) as part of the UD or James Madison University community.


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2:12 p.m., Nov. 29, 2010----The face is familiar, but ... maybe only if it belongs to someone who's a member of the same group as you, psychologists say.

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Previous studies have found that a person is more likely to recognize a photo of a face as familiar if that person belongs to the same racial group as the one in the picture. But now, a University of Delaware graduate student says other “same-group” characteristics also influence recognition and can be just as important as racial identification.

That finding has earned Eric Hehman, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, a national research award for his work exploring what characteristics of a person cause others to remember or forget having seen his face before.

“We found that white students [participating in the research] recognized white faces better than they did black faces,” Hehman said. “But when we identified the faces as either University of Delaware students or James Madison University students, the UD students recognized other UD students better than the JMU students, regardless of their race.”

Previous studies of facial recognition have indicated that “you can't overcome the racial distinctions” that people make, Hehman said, but his research contradicts that.

Hehman, whose adviser is Samuel Gaertner, professor of psychology, received the Psi Chi/American Psychological Association's Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award for the paper he published about the research in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. His citation for the award calls it “an outstanding research paper.”

For his study, Hehman showed UD undergraduates a total of 40 photos of faces -- displayed eight at a time on a computer screen -- and told them they'd be asked later if they recognized them. After a break, they were shown numerous faces one at a time and asked to identify each as one they had seen before or one that did not seem familiar.

When the photos were grouped by race, that characteristic played a significant role in recognition, but when they were grouped by university affiliation, that affiliation became key. Hehman said the psychological mechanism that causes differences in whether a face is recognized is unknown, but he suspects that people remember those who belong to their own group because those people seem more likely to affect or interact with them.

“It seems that the people we aren't as familiar with -- who aren't part of 'our group' -- we aren't able to distinguish that well,” Gaertner said. “That group might be a racial group, but in this study, the participants were re-categorizing the faces using their university affiliation instead of race to identify them as belonging to a particular group.”

Gaertner's research specialty is intergroup relations and exploring how to reduce prejudice and discrimination. Hehman, who said his own research interest resulted from time spent in the military, described his “grandiose long-term goal” as decreasing “the frequency and intensity of intergroup aggression and conflict.”

Article by Ann Manser
Photos by Ambre Alexander