Tag Archives: Dunning-Kruger Effect

Radio stories from the US from last year about prosopagnosia and superrecognizers



Personification at the heart of imagination in stories loved by children

The Thomas the Tank Engine stories, with railway stock who have faces and voices and dialogue and relationships and dramas, and the Wizard of Oz story, with a tin-man and a living scarecrow and curmudgeonly apple trees are just two examples of classic children’s fiction which translated very successfully to popular family screen entertainment, and both are full of objects that are personified. Many synaesthetes like myself have naturally and mysteriously developed conceptions of letters of the alphabet and numbers as having personal characteristics such as genders and personalities, as well as individual and specific colours. These synaesthetic ways of thinking formed in childhood and has become embedded in the structure of the brain. It is possible that all people once experienced synaesthetic thinking as children, but synaptic pruning did away with all that fanciful nonsense for most of us. Perhaps we were all personifying synaesthetes when we were little kids, and perhaps that explains why object personification pops up so often in children’s entertainment. To complement the winter school holidays one of our TV channels is broadcasting The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat and viewed the whole thing and forgotten half of it, but there was some familiarity in the deep and gruff sound of the voice of one of the apple trees. Could any grown tree have a voice that is not dark and resonant? I doubt it. Irrational as it is, object personification operates according to psychological rules and relationships, and big dark brown things tend to have deep voices.

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that popular movies are full of psychology, and the Wizard of Oz is as good an example as any. There’s the object personification in many of the characters. There’s also some interesting psychology in the way that Dorothy feels that she has known her three strange new friends for a long time, but also logically knows that can’t be true (the story is set in a dream with bizarre characters which Dorothy’s sleeping mind has created out of memories of real people in Dorothy’s real life). “Oh, you’re the best friends anybody ever had. And it’s funny, but I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?” Would face processing researchers call that “implicit familiarity” or “covert recognition”? It is actually person recognition, not just face recognition, but then again, I’ve been arguing at this blog that face recognition cannot be separated from person recognition. Faces are only memorable because they are the front windows of minds. I think Dorothy’s strange and unexplained feeling of familiarity is a nice illustration of the way that person recognition is swifter and more emotional than the verbal labeling of people with personal names and place names that we are able to do once we are able to figure out where that person fits into our autobiographical memory bank. That memory bank is quite a thing to search, so it can take a while. I like the way that the Dunning-Kruger Effect or something like it is woven into the centre of the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the tin man not understanding his own emotional dimension, the scarecrow suddenly spouting a bit of geometrical wisdom once told he does have a brain, and the lion needing to be told how brave he actually is even though he had been through so much. There’s also a message about the possibilities of human development, effort and experience changing what we are, if we care to give it a red-hot go. That could have something to do with synapses. Of course, this story has a lot to say about the psychology of quacks, con-artists, fame and inflated authority figures, but the odd thing is, despite the many decades of popularity of this book and the Hollywood movie, great hordes of educated people in America and other English-speaking countries continue to be conned and robbed by quacks, con-artists, famous people and inflated authority figures. Yes, I’m no genius for pointing out the main message of the story of The Wizard of Oz, but if it is such an obvious message, then why does it appear to be so seldom heeded?

Randomly finding studies that have un-noted super-recognizers in them

Don’t assume that if face memory researchers find that they have study subjects who get scores typical of super-recognizers that they will note this fact in the paper or will interpret the data to inquire about the characteristics of super-recognizers. In random internet clicking I keep coming across studies that have super-recognizers in them, and which also appear to have no comment in them about this finding.

Joshua M. Davis, Elinor McKone, Hugh Dennett, Kirsty B. O’Connor, Richard O’Kearney and Romina Palermo Individual Differences in the Ability to Recognise Facial Identity Are Associated with Social Anxiety. PLOS One. Published: December 14, 2011. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028800. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028800

There are two subjects in this study who got scores in the super-recognizer range (71-72 in the short form of the Cambridge Face Memory Test) and three who were pretty darned close with scores of 70, and there were also eleven subjects who scored in the prosopagnosia range of 42 or less in the CFMT short form.

The study measured social anxiety and other things, so what were the findings in relation to the supers and social anxiety? From what I’ve read the cut-off point for social phobia is 36 or more on the SIAS, and none of the supers were anywhere near that, but that is also true for the majority of the subjects who got face memory scores in the prosopagnosia range. Plenty of study subjects got SIAS scores in the social phobia range, but only one of them also had a CFMT score in the prosopagnosia range. Social phobia clearly isn’t explained by issues in face recognition. The study did find a weak correlation between poorer face memory and social anxiety, but I’m surprised that a stronger positive relationship was not found because I think face memory must be pretty important in social functioning. I offer the Dunning-Kruger Effect as an explanation for the weakness of the correlation found. People who don’t know often don’t know what they don’t know and maybe even don’t know that they don’t know. Ignorance is bliss, so they say, and I see evidence of it all around me every day.

In my opinion, the alternative explanation offered to explain the slight correlation between social anxiety and poorer face recognition, that social anxiety could cause the development of poorer face recognition ability, seems unlikely. Kids who are scared of other kids would surely want to keep tabs on who is who, because such kids are likely to be bully-magnets, and certainly not all kids are bullies. I would think in such a situation, a child would have great personal interest in telling the difference between bullies, allies and the general mob, and face memory would seem to be the best tool for this task. That’s just a theory, and often sensible-sounding theories are totally counter to reality, so more research is definitely desirable on this question.

Here’s another study that has super-recognizers in it, but which doesn’t specifically mention or discuss super-recognizers or superrecognition:


[this article to be completed later]

If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

I think it is fair to say that they average person believes that seeing and vision is all about the eyes. In actual fact, a person could be blind but still possess perfectly functioning eyes. the eyes don’t see. It is the brain, or the person who’s consciousness is produced by their brain, which does the seeing, more specifically, the parts of the brain that are responsible for visual processing. I think they are mostly at the back of the brain.

Vision is the result of the operation of the eyes and also the brain, and neuroscience is more and more becoming aware that there is a great amount of normal and also unhealthy variation among brains. The brains of dyslexics don’t handle reading well. The brains of left-handed people are definitley different to those of most of us, but not in one uniform way. Some people’s brains are damaged or derailed in development even before their untra-uterine development is completed and they are born, because their mother smoked during pregnancy or drank alcohol or had some misfortune such as catching one of the many infectious diseases that can harm a foetus. The genes that we all inherit or mutate can affect they way our brains work in profound ways, including visual processing. Prosopagnosia or face-blindness can be inherited and can run in families.

Your brain is different to my brain in countless ways that have an impact on the way our minds work. I often experience music as a coloured form of entertainment. You probably don’t. I can’t help but remember the faces of people that I meet, even if they are people who play very minor roles in my life and are not expected to be met ever again. Here’s an example. I took one of our kids to the Royal Show recently. One of the attendants at one of the animal pavillions was kind enough to let my child collect an egg that one of the prize-winning special-breed chickens had laid in it’s cage. He was a nice person, but there was nothing particularly memorable or different about his face or appearance, and I never expected to meet him again. Some hours later I involuntarily spotted his face among the teeming crowd of scores of show visitors surging down one of the streets in the showgrounds. As is usual, I consciously avoided looking like I had recognized him, lest I be seen as some kind of stalker weirdo. Is this kind of experience a common one? A rare one? Who could know for sure? One thing that I do know is that it was a complete surprise when on a whim I found the Cambridge Face Memory Test online and did the test and found that I had gotten a perfect score. At the same website for the first time I saw the term “super-recognizer”. What is a super-recognizer, I thought? Could I possibly be a super-recognizer? I’ll Google it!

It appears that I have some kind of visual gift, but I had no idea. People who have the opposite level of ability in face recognition also sometimes have little awareness that they are different from the norm. I recall seeing one of the prosopagnosics who were interviewed on the US version of 60 Minutes saying that before her diagnosis she had thought she was just not good with people. That’s a very vague idea of what the issue is. That is a remarkable lack of insight into what was going on in her life, but of course, I’m not blaming her. If you are looking for examples of visual or sensory processing disabilities that people can have but be unaware of, there are clearer examples to find than prosopagnosia. I’ve read that stroke patients can be unaware of a loss of vision in half of the visual field of one or both eyes (hemianopsia) or can be unaware of a loss of awareness of one side of space (Hemispatial neglect). People who have one form of colour-blindness, Anomalous trichromacy, can be unaware that their visual perception is different. Doctors even have a term for a lack of awareness of disability or deficit; Anosognosia. Psychologists have a term that seems to cover similar ground, plus some; the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In the Dunning-Kruger Effect people who lack skill in some area may mistakenly believe they are skilled or even above average, while people whose skills are excellent may lack the appropriate self-confidence to go with their high ability or expertise, because they mistakenly or unknowingly assume that everyone is operating at their level and they are just average. In my experience, the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to visual processing ability. I’ve seen people time and time again mis-identify things such as plants, vehicles or animals with confidence, and time and time again, I get told that I’ve got a great eye for detail. Sometimes it seems to me that it is instead the case that I’m inexplicably surrounded by people who are borderline cases of cortical blindness, or are way overdue for an appointment with an optometrist. If you couldn’t see properly, would you be the last one to know?

My super-recognition skills applied forensically

Earlier this year I was required to identify a person who broke a law from a police photo-board. As you might expect, this was as easy as falling off a log, because I got a good look at the offender. I was able to identify the offender with great confidence, as well as point out an aspect of the offender’s appearance that had markedly changed between the time I saw the offender and the time when the photo was taken. I was also able to rule out all the other photos as not being photos of the offender, which is actually even more important, because while it is important to prosecute offenders, it is even more important to avoid arresting or prosecuting an innocent person. My successful identification of the offender was confirmed by the police officer who was investigating the matter, which hardly seemed necessary as I was quite sure I was right, unless the offender has a twin or is from one of those families in which siblings look very similar. I should point out that the police officer didn’t immediately confirm that my face identification was correct, because the police have a very thoughtful procedure in place to prevent any possibility that an investigating police officer could influence the process of a witness identifying faces from a photo board.

The usefulness of my skills didn’t end there. I have found my ability to identify family resemblance in faces and in other visual characteristics invaluable in identifying relatives and associates of the offender. I was even able to informally identify an associate completely unconsciously. When I saw this person I felt that he was in some way linked to the offender, but not a blood relative. I took note of his appearance. Later I saw the same person in the company of the offender. I’m not sure whether it was a memory of his appearance or his demeanor at the time which initially caught my attention. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that an associate of the offender has recently dyed their hair black, in an apparent attempt to evade identification, which is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Dumb people often assume that everyone else is as dumb as they are, but a change in hair colour isn’t likely to fool a super-recognizer, and probably not a person with adequate face and body recognition capabilities.

It appears to me that my superior face recognition ability has given me an edge over other people, because it appears to me that I’m not recognized nearly as often as I identify others, but one can’t be completely sure. One thing that I’m certain of is that super-recognition ability is definitely of value to police, forensic and security work in many different ways, and possibly in ways that no one has for-seen. Police forces need to be sure that they are making the best possible use of the super-recognizers that they already have in their force, and if possible trying to recruit new officers that have this natural and fairly rare ability. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age police recruitment processes are generally blind to the issue of face recognition, superiority or deficits.

Super-recognizer test? Forget it mate!

I’ve noticed that quite consistently searches that lead people to this blog appear to be people searching for a test relevant to being a super-recognizer, which is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces, a most useful skill in many ways, and a skill that would be relevant to a number of jobs. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who is hoping to gain access to a super-recognizer test, but the fact is that I only know of one test that I know enough about it to say that it could decisively separate super-recognizers from simply good face recognizers, and I have been unsuccessfully been trying to gain access to that test since September of 2010. The test is the Before They Were Famous Test (BTWF), and it was one of the two face recognition tests that were used in the study that was written-up in the science journal paper that launched the concept of the super-recognizer in 2009. I’d love to get to do the BTWF Test, even though there would most likely be subtle cultural differences that might impair my performance on that test. I believe the BTWF Test is a test that uses the faces of celebrities, and I’m sure it was created outside of Australia, and so I would assume that those celebrities would not include any Australian celebrities, and I am an Australian. Nevertheless, I was keen to have a go at this test. I was so keen that I volunteered as a study subject at a local Australian university’s psychology department to do some face recognition tests. To cut a long story short, I got to do two other tests, but not the BTWF Test, and I’m still many months later waiting to be told of the results of one of those tests. Just to explain my interest in face recognition – in 2010 I got a surprise after finding that I got perfect scores on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) and also the Famous Faces test, and then I realised that I could well be a super-recognizer. I’ve been messed around so much by Australian and overseas academics that I don’t think I’d trust them enough to do any further participation in research, and I think there is something strange about the way that I’ve been dealt with by researchers in the area of face recognition.

I find it a curious fact that of all of the researchers who I’ve told that I am a synaesthete and am willing to provide test results that show it and I also suspect that I’m a super-recognizer, not one, including the university researcher whom I’ve met first-hand, has asked to see any of my test results regarding face memory or synaesthesia. Anyone with some familiarity with the published literature about synaesthesia would surely figure that super-recognizing could well be another cognitive advantage associated with synaesthesia. Do face recognition researchers lack a basic knowledge of synaesthesia research, another area of the neuropsychology of sensory perception? Surely not. Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the work that university researchers do. Their job is to do highly structured research studies, with the aim of getting their reports of those studies published in science journals with a good reputation and status. I believe there is considerable pressure to achieve this and do it as often as possible. So perhaps one should not be surprised to find that researchers are only interested in non-academic, non-student people if they can fill the role of being a standardized study subject.

I believe that study subjects like me who do not conform to what appears to be the current scientific view of super-recognizers as “simply the high end of a broad distribution of face recognition ability” (Russell, Duchaine & Nakayama 2009), people like me who are synaesthetes and who score very high in tests of face recognition, are a threat to the current academic status quo, in which the conventional view is that atypical or abnormal brain structure or brain function is associated with deficits in face recognition, and good face recognition ability is taken to be a marker for normality and health and all things nice. A great many studies of face recognition have been inspired by the idea that poor ability to recognize faces and facial expressions are fundamental features of autism. Autism research is supposed to be very well-funded. Studies of face recognition that are promoted as research into the causes of autism would, I guess, attract funding. While not all autistic people are synaesthetes and not all synaesthetes are autistic, there does appear to be some type of link between autism and synaesthesia, so the idea that synaesthetes should be poor at face recognition would be consistent with the above theoretical framework. In fact, the idea that there might be a link between synaesthesia and prosopagnosia appears to be quite a common belief among academics and interested ordinary people. This is based on anecdotes and some very speculative early writing about synaesthesia. So finding a synaesthete super-recognizer who is also very good at identifying facial expressions could upset this apple cart. In any case, those nice red shiny apples seem to be destined for a bruising because of ideas that are being explored by some synaesthesia researchers who are contrasting rather than linking synaesthesia with poor face recognition and other agnosias (Mitchell 2011) or are finding connections between various types of synaesthesia and various types of enhanced perception (Banissy, Garrido et al 2011; Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009).

The other test of face recognition that was used in the study described in Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama’s 2009 paper about super-recognizers was the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which comes in a short and a long form. Both the short and long form are used in that study. It appears that the long form of this test was created to measure a wider range of face recognition abilities, but as can easily be seen in the paper, the long form was quite a failure in this respect. Non-super-recognizers did not fall a long way behind super-recognizers in the CFMT Long Form that much more than they did in the CFMT Short Form. Basically, super-recognizers got perfect of near-perfect scores in the 72 question CFMT Short Form, which is freely available to do over the internet, but a couple of other study subjects also got close to perfect scores in the CFMT.

So, the only thing that I can recommend to anyone who wants to know if they are a super-recognizer is to have a crack at the CFMT, read about the experiences of super-recognizers, and you might also wish to consider whether you have synaesthesia or have any brain-based special abilities or talents such as perfect pitch or high IQ. The Synesthesia Battery is a test for a number of colour-related types of synaesthesia. And remember, the whole concept of the “super-recognizer” is a thing that some academics only recently came up with. I believe the official view of super-recognizers is that they (we?) are only the extreme end of a bell curve representing natural variation in one area of ability. I personally believe that super-recognizers are probably qualitatively different from others rather than merely being quantitatively different – I believe super-recognizer ability could be an effect of synaesthesia or local hyperconnectivity, but I still wouldn’t like to say at what cut-off point in test scores super-recognizers can be identified.

P.S. December 2011

It appears that the CFMT is no longer available from two of the websites that I have linked to, and the only freely available online access to the CFMT is probably through a research study done by researchers at the MIT:  http://facetoface.mit.edu/   If you live in or near London then you might be able to go along to the superrecognizers study currently being conducted at the Science Museum by researchers from the Uni of East London and do some tests as study subjects:  http://www.superrecognizers.com/

I have tried contacting professional psychologists in WA who have private practices to see if any of them can offer access to any face recognition testing. I found a general lack of comprehension, and it appears that they generally haven’t heard of prosopagnosia, let alone super-recognizers. Apparently there is some face memory or face recognition test that is an element of an IQ test and/or vocational aptitude testing. I have not been given any details about this test or tests, and God only knows if it is of any value. There are a number of old face recognition tests, but it appears that the CFMT and the BTWF tests are the only ones that are cheat-proof and currently used by face recognition researchers. I’ve never heard of either of these tests being used as elements of vocational or IQ testing, but who knows?

The idea that superior face recognition ability could be important in employment is an idea that has been proven to be true in the case of police work, a documented example would be the elite squad of super-recognizer police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police force, which was the subject of an interesting article in the UK’s Sunday Times in November 2011. Despite the proven utility of superrecognizers in at least one important job, the idea that this is a valuable work skill appears to be an idea well ahead of our times here in sleepy Western Australia, where our time zone is two years behind the rest of the Anglophone world (except in mining). There is not only the issue that we are behind the times here, there is also the big issue of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias recognized in psychology “in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes”, to quote from Wikipedia. The Dunning-Kruger effect can also negatively affect capable people, in the opposite way “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” So incompetent people can have unjustified self-confidence while more capable people can under-estimate their relative superiority as a result of being ignorant or deceived about the actual level of ability of others. I would argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is very applicable to face recognition ability. I’m sure there are many people with milder developmental prosopagnosia who don’t understand their disability, and I know myself that I never thought of myself as having superior face memory until I tried some online face recognition tests in the pursuit of any clue to the mystery of The Strange Phenomenon. I believe the full extent of the problem goes beyond not understanding one’s self. I believe that only a super-recognizer is able to understand the possibilities and advantages of this very specific type of superior visual processing. I’ve found that many people who I’ve spoken to about super-recognizers doubt that any human could perform better than current face recognition technology, an assumption that appears to be incorrect, and is probably based on ignorance. It should be clear to anyone that good face recognition ability is an essential requirement in policing and has uses in security and detective work, but I doubt that most people would guess that super-recognizing could have medical applications, can be more useful than current face recognition technology and might also have applications in tasks that involve identifying kinship relationships, possibly to do with tracing lost relatives or family history research. To independently realise all of this, a person would have to see what a super-recognizer sees, an experience that is denied to most people. If most people, including most psychologists, have no idea of the possible utility of super-recognizing, why would anyone bother testing for it or identifying it?

If you suspect that you might be a super-recognizer, and wish to have this tested and certified by a professional psychologist or have it verified by participating in university research done by a recognized expert in the field of face recognition, I hope you live in London. Your only other option appears to be taking a look at the MIT study, and taking a screen-shot print-out of any test results. Good luck!


Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011 http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

Grimston, Jack Eagle-Eye of the Yard can spot rioters by their ears. Sunday Times, The, 20.11.2011, p12,13-12,13, 1; Language: EN Section: News Edition: 01 EBSCOhost Accession number 7EH53940939 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/  This interesting article is behind a paywall, so you might try EBSCOHost from your local piblic library.

Mitchell, Kevin J. Curiouser and curiouser: genetic disorders of cortical specialization. Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. 2011 Feb 4. [Epub ahead of print]http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21296568?dopt=Abstract

Russell, Richard, Yue, Xiaomin, Nakayama, Ken and Tootell, Roger B. H.  Neural differences between developmental prosopagnosics and super-recognizers.Journal of Vision. August 6, 2010 vol. 10 no. 7 article 582 doi: 10.1167/10.7.582http://www.journalofvision.org/content/10/7/582.short

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf

Wikipedia contributors Dunning–Kruger effect. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect&oldid=466983876


MIT’s Face to Face Online Study http://facetoface.mit.edu/

“Test My Memory” from Faceblind.org – used to offer the CFMT in the past http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/

“Test My Brain” – used to offer the CFMT in the past, could try the 5 minute “Famous Faces” test http://www.testmybrain.org/

BBC Science Face Memory Test – this test no substitute for the CFMT http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/tmt/

The Synesthesia Battery http://www.synesthete.org/

Further reading about my dealings with psychology researchers:

Science Week 2011 – The world of science and me in the past year   https://superrecognizer.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/science-week-2011-%E2%80%93-the-world-of-science-and-me-in-the-past-year/