Are you a super recogniser?

Super-recognisers have an above average ability to recognise faces. Photo:Getty Images Source: Getty

If you have ever thought your ability to recognise faces was above average, you could be one of the select few super-recognisers who possess this crime fighting ability.

What is a super-recogniser? According to the University of Greenwich, super-recognisers have an above average ability to recognise faces.

This is typically classified as being in the top one-to-two per cent on a selection of face recognition tests.

Richard Kemp, Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of New South Wales, says this rare ability appears to be genetically determined and is not connected with other skills.

“It's not an aspect of general intelligence. So people who are smarter are not necessarily good at this,” he tells Insight.

“But we can teach people techniques which can be useful in particular situations.”

David White, who has been researching face recognition and person perception for several years, says there is a "very broad spectrum of ability in face identification and every little grade in between the extremes."

“If you're a lazy super-recogniser, you won't make identifications..."

He told Insight that rather than focusing on specific features of a face, super-recognisers take in everything.

"I think the thing to say is normal or high functioning face identification, people that are either average or above average in this task, tend to, when they recognise a face, do it automatically based on the whole face."

Those who have been identified as super-recognisers often use their skill to help capture criminals.

That's exactly what Kenny Long in London did when he successfully identified a man who was wanted for several burglaries all over London.

"Well, I was going through several images and as I saw him each time, I'd say straight away 'that's definitely that person'," Kenny, who was working for the police at the time, says.

"You instantly know if it's that person or not."

The super-recognisers fighting crime

Mick Neville was the former detective chief inspector at New Scotland Yard. He describes himself as the world expert in catching criminals and founded the Metropolitan Police super-recogniser unit.

It was what he saw as the “disorganisation” of how police dealt with CCTV images that led him to gather a database of imaging from all over London.

“I circulated them [images] in a systematic way and I realised that some officers made lots and lots of IDs,” he tells Jenny Brockie.

Mick Neville
Mick Neville, right, with super-recogniser, Kenny Long. Photo: Insight
Insight

“So then I started to work with Dr Josh Davis from Greenwich University and we ran some tests to find who these people were … and we got more and more super recognisers.”

But Mick points out that someone who has this skill still needs to work hard to be able to use it correctly.

“If you're a lazy super-recogniser, you won't make identifications and so you need to find the very keen officers who've got this skill and invariably that's what we did,” he says.

And super-recognisers aren’t immune from making mistakes either.

“Well, the super recognisers are not the Holy Father, they're not infallible. We know that they sometimes make mistakes,” he says.

“What we do is retrain the detectives to use their evidence and as has already been said on your show, you can also find additional evidence, fingerprints, DNA, clothing…”

Catch up on Witness part II here: