Stable face representations

Rob Jenkins*, A. Mike Burton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleResearchpeer-review

150 Citations (Scopus)


Photographs are often used to establish the identity of an individual or to verify that they are who they claim to be. Yet, recent research shows that it is surprisingly difficult to match a photo to a face. Neither humans nor machines can perform this task reliably. Although human perceivers are good at matching familiar faces, performance with unfamiliar faces is strikingly poor. The situation is no better for automatic face recognition systems. In practical settings, automatic systems have been consistently disappointing. In this review, we suggest that failure to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar face processing has led to unrealistic expectations about face identification in applied settings. We also argue that a photograph is not necessarily a reliable indicator of facial appearance, and develop our proposal that summary statistics can provide more stable face representations. In particular, we show that image averaging stabilizes facial appearance by diluting aspects of the image that vary between snapshots of the same person. We review evidence that the resulting images can outperform photographs in both behavioural experiments and computer simulations, and outline promising directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1671-1683
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1571
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


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