How to recognise the super-recognisers

Some police officers are far better than others at recognising people glimpsed in CCTV footage, research presented at a Society Conference today will show.

Dr Josh Davis from the University of Greenwich is speaking about his work at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Cognitive Psychology Section. The Conference is being held at the Menzies Hotel in Glasgow..

Dr Davis and his colleagues Karen Lander and Ray Evans from the University of Manchester have been testing a sample of about 20 officers from the Metropolitan Police who between them have identified around 600 suspects. One officer identified over 180 rioters from August 2011, often depicted in extremely poor footage with faces covered by disguise.

The researchers found, from a battery of six tests, that these ‘super-identifiers’ are better on tests of both familiar face and unfamiliar face recognition than controls, particularly when attempting to name highly degraded celebrity images that were more than 10 years old. Performance was also highly correlated with a second test which required participants to identify, from an array of 10 unfamiliar faces, a different photograph of a target face seen very briefly.

However, the officers who were very good at recognising faces were no better than controls at recognising flowers.

Dr Davis says: “The London Metropolitan Police Service standardises the collection and distribution of CCTV footage. Facial images are often displayed on their Caught on Camera ‘wanted’ website. Police officers, who make identifications, are required to independently report the circumstances of any original encounter to avoid suggestions of collusion. 

“A few police officers made large numbers of suspect identifications, considerably enhancing detection rates. Some were local, prolific offenders, and as these are fairly familiar individuals, their identification would not require extreme abilities. Others have recognised suspects not seen for many years, sometimes from poor quality images.

“To put this in context, identifications are also made by other police officers or members of the public. However, they have typically made  only a  single identification since the website was initiated. So super recognisers really are different. Our work is aimed at discovering just why this is and it is still in progress.”