Detecting a viewer’s familiarity with a face: Evidence from event-related brain potentials and classifier analyses

Holger Wiese*, Dasha Anderson, Ulrik Beierholm, Simone C. Tüttenberg, Andrew W. Young, A. Mike Burton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Human observers recognize the faces of people they know efficiently and without apparent effort. Consequently, recognizing a familiar face is often assumed to be an automatic process beyond voluntary control. However, there are circumstances in which a person might seek to hide their recognition of a particular face. The present study therefore used event-related potentials (ERPs) and a classifier based on logistic regression to determine if it is possible to detect whether a viewer is familiar with a particular face, regardless of whether the participant is willing to acknowledge it or not. In three experiments, participants were presented with highly variable “ambient” images of personally familiar and unfamiliar faces, while performing an incidental butterfly detection task (Experiment 1), an explicit familiarity judgment task (Experiment 2), and a concealed familiarity task in which they were asked to deny familiarity with one truly known facial identity while acknowledging familiarity with a second known identity (Experiment 3). In all three experiments, we observed substantially more negative ERP amplitudes at occipito-temporal electrodes for familiar relative to unfamiliar faces starting approximately 200 ms after stimulus onset. Both the earlier N250 familiarity effect, reflecting visual recognition of a known face, and the later sustained familiarity effect, reflecting the integration of visual with additional identity-specific information, were similar across experiments and thus independent of task demands. These results were further supported by the classifier analysis. We conclude that ERP correlates of familiar face recognition are largely independent of voluntary control and discuss potential applications in forensic settings.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13950
Issue number1
Early online date29 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022
Externally publishedYes


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