For years people have joked about Superman wearing glasses as his “disguise” to hide his secret identity as Clark Kent. However a recent study at the University of York has shown that even the smallest change to someone’s facial appearance, like wearing glasses, can shift our ability to identify them… if we don’t know them.
Researchers at the University of York showed 59 study participants side-by-side images and asked them to determine whether each depicted the same person. The images included three categories: people wearing glasses, people not wearing glasses or an image of someone wearing glasses paired with one that wasn’t.
Rather than showing them single images and asking for an identification to test their memory, the researchers wanted to test the participants’ visual comparison abilities by presenting the side-by-sides. The participants were not under time constraints while viewing the images.
For cases in which both images showed someone in glasses or someone not wearing glasses, 80% of the students were able to accurately identify whether it was the same person. But that accuracy dropped 6% when comparing a person wearing glasses next to someone who wasn’t.
“A 6% drop in performance may not sound like much, but if you consider the number of people who go through passport control at Atlanta International airport every year – over 100 million last year – a 6% drop in accuracy equates to 6 million misidentifications,” said Kay Ritchie, co-author of the study from the University of York’s psychology department. “We hope this work can be used to inform future policies on face identification, particularly given the discrepancy between different forms of photo ID when it comes to wearing glasses.”
While this may go a long way to explaining why people who don’t know Superman or Clark Kent don’t recognize them as being the same person, for many fans it won’t help provide a reasonable explanation for characters like Lois Lane, Perry White or Jimmy Olsen who know both.