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January 2014
Thursday January 9th 2014 

Mike Burton give a talk on recent work from the lab at the January meeting of the Experimental Psychology Society @ University College London

Professor Mike Burton & Adam Sandford

Tolerance for distorted faces: a challenge to the configural processing
account of recognition.

Face recognition is widely held to rely on ‘configural processing’, an analysis of spatial relations between facial features. However, this concept is never operationalised – no theory describes which spatial relations are used to recognise a face. We present three experiments in which viewers were shown distorted faces, and asked to resize these to their correct shape. Based on configural theories, we reason that this should be an easier task for familiar than unfamiliar faces (whose subtle arrangements of features are unknown). In fact, we found large errors in this task, with no advantage for familiar faces: in one experiment participants were more accurate with unfamiliars, and in two experiments there was no difference. These findings were not due to task difficulty – participants were able to resize other stimuli quite accurately. If configural processing does underlie face recognition, these results place severe constraint on the definition of ‘configural’. Alternatively, face recognition might rely on more complex criteria – based on tolerance to within-person variation rather than highly specific measurement.