Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 November 2019

Face it, Emiratis are just better at recognising people

An Abu Dhabi study on face recognition has shown that Emiratis are better than Americans at recognising faces, in part because locals have a good eye for a nose.
Emiratis have strong face recognition skills. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi
Emiratis have strong face recognition skills. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Researchers have found varying abilities in recognising others through their facial features, but Emiratis fare strongly in that department thanks to certain cultural and tribal customs.

Have you ever run into a friend and they somehow just looked different? You recognised them immediately, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on what had changed exactly.

As soon as you realise what the difference is, there’s a kind of “aha” moment.

You then spend the next few seconds reappraising the face, saying polite things like “it looks good, honest”.

Such experiences highlight one of mankind’s most underappreciated abilities, specifically, our capacity for effortlessly recognising thousands of faces.

Not only can we identify innumerable visages, but our memory for them is pretty durable, too.

In one study, participants recognised the faces of about 90 per cent of their old high school classmates 35 years after graduation.

Our occasional inability to spot changes in faces, such as reshaped eyebrows or missing beards, highlights the sophisticated way in which we typically process facial information.

Under normal conditions, we tend to use what cognitive psychologists call configural processing. That is, we treat the face as a whole rather than focusing on its individual features.

Occasionally though, we’re forced to process specific parts of a face. This so-called feature-based analysis may occur, for instance, when we don’t fully recognise an old acquaintance or when scrutinising the face of that friend who somehow looks different today.

Unsurprisingly, as with most other human abilities, there is a fair degree of individual difference when it comes to our powers of face recognition.

Some of us are great at it, while others are so bad that they might mistakenly be considered snobbish for regularly failing to recognise and greet their acquaintances.

At its most extreme, the inability to successfully differentiate people’s faces is known as prosopagnosia. People experiencing this condition struggle to recognise the faces of even their nearest and dearest.

In an attempt to better understand individual differences in face recognition, several studies have reported that extroverts are, on average, better than introverts, suggesting that the more gregarious and sociable among us may develop better face-processing abilities.

A recent review of face recognition literature also concluded that women tend to be more accurate than men.

But what about cross-cultural differences and, more specifically, how do Emiratis fare in terms of face processing ability? To further explore the question of cultural influences, a joint research team from New York University Abu Dhabi and Zayed University assessed face recognition abilities in Emirati and American students (white US citizens).

Lead by Dr Susanne Quadflieg, an experimental psychologist now at the University of Bristol, the team used a computerised test to assess the recognition of whole faces (20 Arab and 20 white faces) and individual facial features (eyes, mouths, noses).

In total, they assessed 170 students with approximately equal numbers of participants from both nations.

The basic testing procedure involved participants being shown a target face on a computer screen for 1,500 milliseconds (1.5 seconds) followed by a blank screen for 300 milliseconds. This was followed by the presentation of two faces – the original target face and a very close look-a-like. Participants then hit a key to indicate which face they believed to be the original target face.

Additionally, half of the trials presented the target face, followed by two sets of features, for example, two noses or two pairs of eyes.

Again, the objective was for the participant to choose the facial feature – eyes, nose or mouth – that rightly belonged to the original face. Each participant completed a total of 240 trials in randomised order; half with Arab faces and features, and half with white faces and features. The results revealed that Emiratis generally outperformed their US counterparts. They were particularly skilled at differentiating Arab faces and at spotting subtle changes in a face’s nose region.

One explanation for the observed advantage is the Emirati custom of wearing head coverings in public life.

For religious and cultural reasons, Emirati men and women tend to cover their head with the ghutra and shayla, respectively.

This life-long experience with faces framed by head coverings frequently prevents Emiratis from using external facial features, such as hairstyles, bald heads and ears, to recognise people. This lack of external facial information may be honing the Emirati ability to memorise a person’s unique internal facial appearance. There are, however, other possible cultural explanations for the advantage.

The relatively high prevalence of consanguineous (cousin) marriages among Emiratis, for instance, may have created social environments in which the faces of different individuals are physically more alike than in countries where consanguineous marriages are relatively rare, such as in the US.

As for the Emirati eye for noses, this might reflect the nose’s particular cultural significance. The phrase “sallat al saif” is widely used in Emirati poetry to describe a nose that looks like a drawn sword: a straight bridge, narrow nostrils and a pointed tip.

Many Emiratis also greet close friends or family members with a nose rub.

In other words, Emiratis could be particularly good at processing noses, as this facial feature, for them, strongly informs rapid judgments of beauty and kinship.

More research is needed to explore what exactly underlies the Emirati face-recognition advantage.

A full report of the study is forthcoming in the journal Perception.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and part of the research team for the study

Updated: March 28, 2015 04:00 AM