Friday, May 18, 2007

Face Shapes, First Names, and the Malleability of Memory

This is might be off-topic, but it's Friday afternoon and I thought this was pretty interesting. Some research came out this week from psychologists at Miami University in Ohio, suggesting that people are wired to expect certain correlations to exist between certain names and certain facial characteristics.

If you want to test out the theory, check out these photos and take a stab at which face you think is a "Tim," and which one is a "Bob."

The researchers only looked at white males, as a method of limiting the study "subtly perceived differences among mostly homogeneous faces." The results suggest that people store "prototype faces" for certain names -- like a round face for "Bob," and a thin face for "Tim" -- and that people have more difficulty remembering names when the characteristics of a person's face conflict with the prototype.

The researchers didn't speculate on the applicability of the research findings outside of the narrow range of white male test subjects and a handful of common first names, but interesting to see what seems intuitively true borne out by some actual research.

Also interesting, at at least conceivably relevant to the eyewitness ID scenario, is that people were observed to actually distort the characteristics of people's faces in their memories, when learning that a person has a particular name for which a "prototype" suggests that certain characteristics should be present. When a test subject learned that a face belonged to a "Bob," she would be more likely to add "roundness" to that person's face in her memory, even when the trait was not present. In other words, the memory was seen to morph to fit the preconception associated with the name, when the name was known.

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