What makes a face photo a ‘good likeness’?

Kay L. Ritchie, Robin S.S. Kramer, A. Mike Burton*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


Photographs of people are commonly said to be ‘good likenesses’ or ‘poor likenesses’, and this is a concept that we readily understand. Despite this, there has been no systematic investigation of what makes an image a good likeness, or of which cognitive processes are involved in making such a judgement. In three experiments, we investigate likeness judgements for different types of images: natural images of film stars (Experiment 1), images of film stars from specific films (Experiment 2), and iconic images and face averages (Experiment 3). In all three experiments, participants rated images for likeness and completed speeded name verification tasks. We consistently show that participants are faster to identify images which they have previously rated as a good likeness compared to a poor likeness. We also consistently show that the more familiar we are with someone, the higher likeness rating we give to all images of them. A key finding is that our perception of likeness is idiosyncratic (Experiments 1 and 2), and can be tied to our specific experience of each individual (Experiment 2). We argue that likeness judgements require a comparison between the stimulus and our own representation of the person, and that this representation differs according to our prior experience with that individual. This has theoretical implications for our understanding of how we represent familiar people, and practical implications for how we go about selecting images for identity purposes such as photo-ID.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
Early online date14 Sept 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


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