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Quick test can identify face blindness – study

Published: 17 May 2017 at 10:42

A man with a blanked out face

Research by Anglia Ruskin psychologist shows suitability of online questionnaire

New research published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology shows how a simple online questionnaire can help to diagnose face blindness – a little known but surprisingly common condition.

The inability to recognise faces – known as prosopagnosia – is thought to affect around one in 50 people.  

Those affected have to rely on other clues such as hairstyles, clothes or the way people talk, and in some cases they avoid social situations for fear of embarrassment or offending others.  Actor Brad Pitt explained during an interview how the condition can make him appear egotistical.

New research, led by Punit Shah of Anglia Ruskin University, looked at whether a questionnaire can provide people with an accurate insight into their face recognition ability.

The researchers asked participants about the extent to which they agree or disagree with 20 statements, such as “I often mistake people I have met before for strangers” or “I sometimes find movies hard to follow because of difficulties recognising characters”. 

Comparing these scores with results from in depth computerised face recognition tasks found that people do have insight into their own face blindness – with moderate-to-strong and statistically significant correlations between these measures – indicating that a questionnaire could prove to be an effective and quick way of diagnosing the condition.

Shah, a Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 


“Some people with face blindness struggle to recognise their family and friends, and this can have a negative impact on their lives. 

“Face blindness has been recognised by the NHS since 2016 and it is important to establish how many people are affected in order that they receive the assistance they need.

“Psychologists interested in face blindness have been hesitant to use questionnaires, but our new study suggests that using a well-designed questionnaire is helpful in recognising the condition and is suitable to be used on a large scale.

“We are now adapting this questionnaire as there is evidence that prosopagnosia exists in children.  It could help to explain why some children struggle to make close friends, and the problem could be more acute in schools where uniforms are worn.

“Early detection may be beneficial as training programmes to improve face recognition, which are known to work in adults, may be even more successful in children given that they have a more ‘plastic brain’.  There is still a lot to learn about prosopagnosia, but this research into identifying the condition using questionnaires is hopefully a step in the right direction.”