UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Despite conventional wisdom that suggests women are better than men at facial recognition, Penn State psychologists found no difference between men and women in their ability to recognize faces and categorize facial expressions.
In the study, the researchers used behavioral tests, as well as neuroimaging, to investigate whether there is an influence of biological sex on facial recognition, according to Suzy Scherf, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience.
"There has been common lore in the behavioral literature that women do better than men in many types of face-processing tasks, such as face recognition and detecting and categorizing facial expressions, although, when you look in the empirical literature, the findings are not so clear cut," said Scherf. "I went into this work fully expecting to see an effect of biological sex on the part of the observer in facial recognition -- and we did not find any. And we looked really hard."
Scherf said that facial recognition is one of the most important skills people use to navigate social interactions. It is also a key motivation for certain types of behavior, as well.
"Within 30 milliseconds of looking at a face, you can figure out the age, the sex, whether you know the person or not, whether the person is trustworthy, whether they're competent, attractive, warm, caring -- we can make categorizations on faces that fast," said Scherf. "And some of that is highly coordinated with our behavioral decisions of what we are going to do following those attributions and decisions. For example, Do I want to vote for this person? Do I want to have a conversation with this person? Where do I fit in the status hierarchy? A lot of what we do is dictated by the information we get from faces."
Scherf added that the importance of facial recognition for both sexes underlines the logic of why men and women should have equal facial recognition abilities.
"Faces are just as important for men, you can argue, as they are for women," said Scherf. "Men get all the same cues from faces that women do."