Do professional facial image comparison training courses work?

Alice Towler*, Richard I. Kemp, A. Mike Burton, James D. Dunn, Tanya Wayne, Reuben Moreton, David White

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)
74 Downloads (Pure)


Facial image comparison practitioners compare images of unfamiliar faces and decide whether or not they show the same person. Given the importance of these decisions for national security and criminal investigations, practitioners attend training courses to improve their face identification ability. However, these courses have not been empirically validated so it is unknown if they improve accuracy. Here, we review the content of eleven professional training courses offered to staff at national security, police, intelligence, passport issuance, immigration and border control agencies around the world. All reviewed courses include basic training in facial anatomy and prescribe facial feature (or 'morphological') comparison. Next, we evaluate the effectiveness of four representative courses by comparing face identification accuracy before and after training in novices (n = 152) and practitioners (n = 236). We find very strong evidence that short (1-hour and half-day) professional training courses do not improve identification accuracy, despite 93% of trainees believing their performance had improved. We find some evidence of improvement in a 3-day training course designed to introduce trainees to the unique feature-by-feature comparison strategy used by facial examiners in forensic settings. However, observed improvements are small, inconsistent across tests, and training did not produce the qualitative changes associated with examiners' expertise. Future research should test the benefits of longer examination-focussed training courses and incorporate longitudinal approaches to track improvements caused by mentoring and deliberate practice. In the absence of evidence that training is effective, we advise agencies to explore alternative evidence-based strategies for improving the accuracy of face identification decisions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0211037
JournalPLoS One
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019
Externally publishedYes


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