Do I Know You? Why Some People Remember Faces and Some of us Don’t

pumpkin face

A dreaded experience I endure on an almost weekly basis is going shopping with my husband.  No, it isn’t because I feel like I have to drag him to the store and then find a place for him to sit while I do all the walking (though that is annoying); rather, my dreaded experience is realizing how bad my ability to recognize people is compared to his.  He seems to remember everyone he’s ever met and can spot them all in a split second.  I, on the other hand, struggle recognizing people’s faces.

Figure 1. My results from taking the test.  I was able to recognize (or guess really good) 58 out of 72 times.

It’s made for some awkward conversations when people we have spoken to have at times come out and said to me, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Well…that isn’t so much the case.  I probably remember you as a person if we have spoken to each other in the past.  I just don’t remember your face, unless it’s very distinctive.  Even then, no promises.

A recent study by Jeremy Wilmer, “Individual differences in face recognition: A decade of discovery” (2017) delves into the mysterious reasons why some of us are so good at recognizing people’s faces and why some of us are so bad.

First of all, the ability to recognize faces appears to be genetically based.  Studies upon twins suggest this.  Interestingly, the ability to recognize faces does not have a correlation to an individual’s IQ.  Positive or negative past experiences or environmental conditions also appear to play no significant role and the peak for the highest ability to recognize faces occurs between the ages of 30-40.

So, if it’s genetics, which it appears to be, then apparently there isn’t a strong selective pressure to prefer strong facial recognition abilities over weak ones.  Possibly, it doesn’t benefit us to recognize people that we’ve met in the past.

 :arrow: You can test your abilities by clicking here.

After taking the test myself, I scored higher than average but that may be attributed to a flaw in the testing process.  The test has the user study a number of faces for so many seconds and then pick the face they recognize out of three options.  So, even if I wasn’t really sure, I had a 1 in 3 chance of just picking the right answer by chance, although there were very few questions in which I felt like I had to guess.  I did notice that those faces with more distinctive characteristics, like a large chin or very round face, I could recognize.  It was the faces that were more average in appearance that I had trouble with.

The study also pointed out that training people with poor face recognition skills doesn’t seem to help.  It’s apparently not a learned skill or ability.

So, I guess that just leaves me bumping into a lot of people in the grocery store that I have no idea I know or once knew.  That can be a bad thing, especially if I owe them money.


Jeremy B. Wilmer, “Individual differences in face recognition: A decade of discovery”. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 June 2017, Vol. 26(3) 225-230.

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