Infrequent identity mismatches are frequently undetected
The ability to quickly and accurately match faces to photographs bears critically on many domains, from controlling purchase of age-restricted goods to law enforcement and airport security. Despite its pervasiveness and importance, research has shown that face matching is surprisingly error prone. The majority of face-matching research is conducted under idealized conditions (e.g., using photographs of individuals taken on the same day) and with equal proportions of match and mismatch trials, a rate that is likely not observed in everyday face matching. In four experiments, we presented observers with photographs of faces taken an average of 1.5 years apart and tested whether face-matching performance is affected by the prevalence of identity mismatches, comparing conditions of low (10 %) and high (50 %) mismatch prevalence. Like the low-prevalence effect in visual search, we observed inflated miss rates under low-prevalence conditions. This effect persisted when participants were allowed to correct their initial responses (Experiment 2), when they had to verify every decision with a certainty judgment (Experiment 3) and when they were permitted “second looks” at face pairs (Experiment 4). These results suggest that, under realistic viewing conditions, the low-prevalence effect in face matching is a large, persistent source of errors.