Ready to feel a little silly? Researchers have found that wearing glasses actually does make unfamiliar faces harder to identify, which means that Clark Kent could conceivably get away with his ridiculous disguise. The results were published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Lead author Robin Kramer is a psychology researcher at the University of York. He says exploring the success of Superman’s flimsy costume is meaningful not only for comic book readers, but for international security. After all, photo IDs are only as good as the ability of law enforcement and other security officials to match a person’s face with the photo on their passport or driver’s license.
Previous studies have shown (and common sense suggests) that we’re better at spotting disguises when they’re worn by people we know. But when it comes to strangers, it doesn’t seem to take much to throw us off.
Kramer and his York colleague Kay Ritchie, a facial-recognition expert, decided to test just how easily we and the citizens of Metropolis could be fooled. They brought volunteers into the lab and showed them a series of pairs of candid photos of the type you might see on Facebook. Some pairs of photos depicted the same person, while others showed two people who looked somewhat similar. In some of the pairs, both people wore glasses. In others, neither wore glasses. The remaining pairs included one photo with glasses and one without.
Sure enough, simply adding glasses to one person’s face was enough to throw the study participants for a loop. When both photo subjects in a pair were either bespectacled or bare-faced, people were able to tell if they were the same person with about 80 percent accuracy. But once the researchers added glasses to one photo, the participants’ success rate dropped by 6 percent—not a huge dip, but statistically significant, the authors say. Clark Kent and Superman did indeed look more like two different people.
Kramer and Ritchie note that Clark Kent's camouflage would likely only work on strangers. It definitely wouldn’t have fooled Lois Lane, who has, shall we say, probably seen him with his glasses off. But the countless beneficiaries of Superman’s heroics could easily have overlooked the difference between the Man of Steel and his bookish alter ego.
The researchers say these findings could help inform real-life crime fighting. "We hope that this research can be used by legal authorities to help inform future policies on identification for security purposes," Kramer said in a press statement, "particularly in the UK, where individuals who normally wear glasses are required to remove them for their identification cards."
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