Why do we sometimes mistake people we know for strangers, or strangers for people we know?
The confusion is explained by Isabelle Boutet, a uOttawa psychology professor who specializes in facial recognition. Her research focuses mainly on people aged 55 and older and their ability to recognize faces.
Facial recognition is the ability to identify someone by looking at their facial features and pairing this with information stored in our mental database – a skill most of us rely on. This ability allows us to recognize people in our day-to-day lives.
According to Professor Boutet, there are two types of facial recognition errors. The first occurs when we mistake a stranger for someone we know; the second occurs when we fail to recognize someone we actually do know. Younger people make both types of errors. However, adults aged 55 and older make only one type in particular – they’ll think they recognize someone, when in fact, they don’t know them at all.It is known that as people age, their vision worsens. Professor Boutet says vision loss plays a key role in facial recognition errors, which we often incorrectly assign to memory problems.
In fact, during her research, professor Boutet found that older adults usually earn a perfect score in recognizing individuals they’ve seen before. Older adults mistake strangers as familiar because they have so many faces stored in their memories. Consequently, nearly anyone they encounter may look like a familiar face. This is why they typically only make one type of mistake: thinking they recognize a stranger.
This type of confusion can be embarrassing and can take a toll on an older person’s self-esteem. Unfortunately, it can also discourage them from approaching people they truly do know, which can harm their social network and result in isolation.
Interestingly, research shows that older adults are better at recognizing faces that were smiling when they first encountered them. In other words, an initial smiling face makes it easier for older adults to remember and recognize someone in the future. It’s likely that older adults pay more attention to faces that display positive emotions in order to feel more positive themselves, thereby increasing their overall sense of well-being.
Vision loss affects many important aspects of an older adult’s social network, including their job performance and other responsibilities. Older adults who are confused or unable to perform visual tasks in a professional setting can experience embarrassment and self-isolation, further harming their social network.
Vision and facial recognition are essential to police work, border patrol duties or eye witness testimony. A decline in vision and facial recognition skills can hinder a person’s job performance and may even force them into early retirement, potentially stripping them of their identity and isolating them further.
Professor Boutet strongly encourages individuals to get their vision checked regularly by an optometrist and to wear their glasses in social settings. Good vision is vital for adults over 55: it can help them avoid mistaking a stranger for someone they know and initiating a cycle of confusion, embarrassment and isolation.
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa