Minor Changes in a Person’s Appearance Can Affect Facial Identification (Though That’s Not Actually Superman’s Secret)

Facial Identification

You have likely heard of the study suggesting that minor changes in a person’s appearance—like Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, wearing glasses—can throw off facial identification. The findings are interesting and definitely have real implications for things like security checks. However, this is not actually the reason Clark Kent finds his glasses effective. Read on for what the research says (and for some comic book wisdom).

The Study

The study design was fairly basic. Fifty-nine participants were shown a series of images of people in “natural” poses that were taken from Google Images and presented in pairs. The participants were then asked if the two images were of the same person. The pairs came in one of three types: both faces without glasses, both with glasses, and only one with glasses.

When comparing images where both people were or were not wearing glasses, positive facial identification (knowing when the people were different or the same) was about 80%. In cases where only one person was wearing glasses, accuracy dropped to roughly 74%, as participants became more likely to say the pictures were of two different people. This was proposed to be the same as a similar effect experienced in another study where hair color was changed—a sort of mental rule of thumb that says the two images are more likely to be of different people.

Although these findings do have some implications for things like security checks, the researchers do note that passport photos and the like are much easier to use for photo identification than the images used in the study. For instance, facial expressions in passports are more neutral. They also acknowledge that someone can simply be asked to remove their glasses.

The Superman Disguise, Explained

Okay, so, the researchers try to have a bit of fun by associating the whole Superman/Clark Kent disguise with their study, and plenty of news outlets have picked it up. The problem with this is that the whole “he wears glasses so he must be a different person” thing, while amusing and easy to make fun of, is not actually the whole story behind the disguise.

In Aquaman Volume 3: Throne of Atlantis, there is a scene where Clark encourages Diana (Wonder Woman) to go out to dinner with him. He gives her a spare pair of his glasses to prevent her from being recognized. At dinner, she is amazed at the fact that the glasses actually work, prompting Clark to explain his reasoning:

  • Most people only see Superman at a distance or from an angle, since they are usually flying, and don’t get a good look at their faces. It also helps that heroes tend to be moving around a lot, and rather quickly at that.
  • Civilians don’t really think of superheroes as having regular lives, so they don’t associate them with a normally dressed person as easily.
  • The glasses are used to help emphasize the above two points.

In other words, minor changes to a person’s appearance may be able to affect facial identification, but it is either wrong or a gross oversimplification to say that that’s why Clark Kent is an effective disguise for Superman.


Sources:

Kramer, R., et. al., ” Disguising Superman: How Glasses Affect Unfamiliar Face Matching,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2016; 10.1002/acp.3261.

Johns, Geoff, Aquaman Volume 3: Throne of Atlantis, DC Comics, 2013.


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