At this point, it’s well-trod territory: why couldn’t star reporter Lois Lane recognize that her nerdy coworker Clark Kent was also Superman? How could simply changing one’s clothes, slipping off a pair of glasses, and brushing one’s hair fool a grown adult? Who could fall for such surface-level changes in appearance?
Well. Plenty of people, as it turns out. Researchers at the University of York and University of Huddersfield recently led an experiment testing the average person’s ability to recognize disguised faces in photos. Models were given resources to change their hair, facial hair, and makeup, but were not allowed to wear common spy movie props like hats or sunglasses, since these are banned in most security settings. To sweeten the pot, a cash reward was offered to the model who could fool the most people.
There was, it turned out, steep competition. The models fooled participants about 30% of the time. In fact, subjects could only reliably see through a disguise if it was being worn by someone they knew in real life.
This last detail was not itself so surprising; when you look at a stranger, you tend to identify them by surface-level traits: the red-haired woman, the bearded man, that fellow in the newsroom with the glasses. However, once you get to know someone, your facial reading software gets more advanced, so to speak. You start to know the shape of a person’s nose and the configuration of their cheekbones, the set of their mouth and the line of their chin, what study co-author Rob Jenkins calls “internal facial features,” which are, he notes, “much harder to alter.”
It’s the reason that when your friend gets a really dramatic haircut, you’re not left completely mystified, asking helplessly, “Who are you?”
The researchers also looked at two different types of disguises: impersonation and evasion. Impersonation, just as it sounds, involves trying to look like a specific other person. For instance, trying to match the photo on a stolen ID. Evasion disguises are simply an attempt to look unlike your usual appearance, which might come in handy if your face ever shows up on a wanted poster. The study found that evasion disguises are generally more effective. This makes sense, because when your only goal is to change your appearance, you have a great many more tools at your disposal: haircuts, curlers, straightening irons, makeup, and yes, even glasses.
This may help to explain why con artists so often get away with obscuring their true identities, even if it doesn’t shed much light on Superman’s very lightweight deception abilities.
The next step for the researchers is to see if computer recognition can be equally fooled. Meanwhile, the next step for Lois Lane is to wonder why she still can’t identify the face of a man she sees every workday when he doesn’t even bother with a blond wig or a fake mustache.