Arguments against a configural processing account of familiar face recognition

A. Mike Burton*, Stefan R. Schweinberger, Rob Jenkins, Jürgen M. Kaufmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

117 Citations (Scopus)
36 Downloads (Pure)


Face recognition is a remarkable human ability, which underlies a great deal of people’s social behavior. Individuals can recognize family members, friends, and acquaintances over a very large range of conditions, and yet the processes by which they do this remain poorly understood, despite decades of research. Although a detailed understanding remains elusive, face recognition is widely thought to rely on configural processing, specifically an analysis of spatial relations between facial features (so-called second-order configurations). In this article, we challenge this traditional view, raising four problems: (1) configural theories are underspecified; (2) large configural changes leave recognition unharmed; (3) recognition is harmed by nonconfigural changes; and (4) in separate analyses of face shape and face texture, identification tends to be dominated by texture. We review evidence from a variety of sources and suggest that failure to acknowledge the impact of familiarity on facial representations may have led to an overgeneralization of the configural account. We argue instead that second-order configural information is remarkably unimportant for familiar face recognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)482-496
Number of pages15
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2015
Externally publishedYes


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