Are you the world's best super-recogniser?

Psychologists use online test to unearth people with exceptional facial recognition abilities

People who can pick out a face in a crowd like a computer searching its data bank are increasingly being sought by businesses and governments.

Super-recognisers can identify people they may have met only once years ago or have seen only in photographs.

For some, it helps make a business-winning connection with a new client, while others can identify adult photos of people with whom they went to school.

As more research takes place, it is looking as if super-recognisers have a DNA advantage, rather than it being a learned skill that can be honed.

Now a team at the Forensic Psychology Lab at UNSW Sydney is setting out to identify the world’s best super-recognisers.

The team has developed an online Face Test system that has been used 31,000 times since 2017 to identify super-recognisers.

A screen demonstrates facial-recognition technology at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China, on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. The conference runs through Aug. 31. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

UNSW is planning studies to find out how the super-recognisers process faces and how the brain reacts.

Governments and commercial organisations are searching for people with superior face-recognition abilities.

It was previously believed that improving facial recognition skills could be taught, as a way of helping police and security services make more accurate judgments about a person's identity.

While teaching is possible to a point, it is now accepted that genes and DNA play a key role.

"What we've found is that face recognition varies naturally, like IQ does. And just like IQ, it appears that a large proportion of that variance is genetically determined," said Dr James Dunn, from UNSW.

"We are starting to see industries looking within and outside of their organisations for super-recognisers to work in specialised face-identification roles," he said. "This can include police, but may also include government and commercial bodies like immigration, intelligence agencies, security agencies, financial institutions, even casinos."

Only 1 or 2 per cent of the population are thought to be super-recognisers.

Nicole told UNSW she was 11 years old when she realised she could recognise all her teachers' baby faces in a competition at her school.

"When everyone else was struggling to find just a couple of faces they knew, I correctly identified all 20 faces very easily. At the time I thought it was strange, but it felt super cool, too," she said.

Duncan said being a super-recogniser helped him as a recruiter. "People are always extremely flattered when you remember them, or if we haven't actually met in person and I've only seen their picture on social media they are usually pretty shocked."

But others are more cautious about showing off their ability.

Sallie resorts to hiding her skill. "I often have to lie that I've never met or seen people before," she said. "It freaks them out. ‘Oh, I saw you last week at Woolworths' makes you sound like a stalker."