Discrimination and recognition of faces with changed configuration


Subtle metric differences in facial configuration, such as between-person variation in the distances between the eyes, have been used widely in psychology to explain face recognition. However, these studies of configuration have typically utilized unfamiliar faces rather than the familiar faces that the process of recognition ultimately seeks to explain. This study investigates whether face recognition relies on the metric information presumed in configural theory, by manipulating the interocular distance in both unfamiliar and familiar faces. In Experiment 1, observers were asked to detect which face in a pair was presented with its configuration intact. In Experiment 2, this discrimination task was repeated with faces presented individually, and observers were also asked to make familiarity categorizations to the same stimuli. In both experiments, familiarity determined detection of faces in their original configuration, and also enhanced identity categorization in Experiment 2. However, discrimination of configuration was generally low. In turn, recognition accuracy was generally high irrespective of configuration condition. Moreover, observers most sensitive to configuration during discrimination did not appear to rely on this information for recognition of familiar faces. These results demonstrate that configuration theory provides limited explanatory power for the recognition of familiar faces.

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The authors would like to thank Afnan Khan, Courtney Rende, Kavita Brijpaul, and Skylar Rego for assistance with data collection.


This research was supported by a University of Guelph-Humber grant.

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Correspondence to Adam Sandford.

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Sandford, A., Bindemann, M. Discrimination and recognition of faces with changed configuration. Mem Cogn (2020) doi:10.3758/s13421-019-01010-7

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  • Face
  • Recognition
  • Configuration