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Both men, women are bad at recognising faces

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Washington: Refuting the basic theory that women are better at recognising faces than men, a new study found no difference between men and women in their ability to recognize faces and categorize facial expressions. The findings have been published in the journal eNeuro.

In the study, Penn State psychologists used behavioural tests, as well as neuroimaging, to investigate whether there is an influence of biological sex on facial recognition, according to Suzy Scherf, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience.

“There has been common lore in the behavioural literature that women do better than men in many types of face-processing tasks, such as face recognition and detecting and categorizing facial expressions, although, when you look in the empirical literature, the findings are not so clear cut,” said Scherf.


Scherf said that facial recognition is one of the most important skills people use to navigate social interactions. It is also a key motivation for certain types of behaviour, as well.

Scherf added that the importance of facial recognition for both sexes underlines the logic of why men and women should have equal facial recognition abilities.

“Faces are just as important for men, you can argue, as they are for women,” said Scherf. “Men get all the same cues from faces that women do.” According to Scherf, the researchers did not find any evidence of another commonly held belief that women could recognize faces of their own biological sex more easily than the other, also referred to as “own gender bias.”

The researchers, who report their findings in eNeuro (available online), used a common face recognition task called the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which measures whether a person can identify a male face out of a line up of three faces.

They also created their own female version of the memory test. Because of previous concerns of an own gender bias in women, the Cambridge Face Memory Test features only male faces.

“We couldn’t test the own gender bias without a female version of this test,” said Scherf, who worked with Daniel B. Elbich and Natalie V. Motta-Mena, both graduate students in psychology.

 “This is important because in nearly all the affective disorders – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar – face processing is disrupted.” The researchers also screened out participants with concussions, which can disrupt patterns of brain activation and function, Scherf added.