Forensic Psychology: Advances in Facial Recognition Methods

The ‘Margaret Thatcher Effect’ as it was first done with an image of her. Processing faces can sometimes be difficult.

With the advent of computer systems, there is an opportunity to create an ever msteve_peter_morphore sophisticated method of reconstructing faces to aid the police (Bruce, Frowd, and Hancock).  However, such devices while impressive in their ability to create something that looks like someone they still depend upon the reliability of the minds cognitive processes to  accurately recall unique information about  the features of the face, was that a Roman nose, were they olive shaped eyes? Research suggests humans have a natural inclination to process and recognise faces above all other information  from an evolutionary perspective this makes a lot of sense.  However reconstructing from recall those faces does not come as easily. Factors such as ‘Weapon Focus’ (Loftus, 87) and post witness  identification influences such as confirming feedback (Wells and Bradfield 1998) call into question the accuracy of any eye-witness testimony. Pawan Sinha published an influential article on key factors that impact upon the accuracy of facial reconstruction read it here. Try a facial recognition test here.

The variability of someone’s ability to accurately recall a face can be seen evidently below…..


Believe it or not the above image contributed to the perpetrator being caught…


The difficulty of constructing faces from our memory has been known for over 30 years (e.g. Davies, 1978). We are not good at the tasks required – describing and selecting individual facial features – instead we process faces ‘holistically’, more as a complete entity (e.g. Young et al., 1987). For example, the perception of facial features changes in the presence of other features (e.g. Tanaka & Farah, 1993), and so the features and their position on the face are both important. Modern facial composite systems, where witnesses choose individual features in the context of a complete face, apply this idea to some extent.

Frowd, Bruce and Hancock (2008) Changing the face of criminal identification

However Evofit can and does prove accurate and, therefore useful, and the infamous ‘Beat of Bozeat’ case was such an example. Frowd and Bruce used this as part of their research.


The use of ‘Holistic’ based software such as EvoFit allows factors such as trustworthiness or aggressiveness can be added in the face as Sinha identifies recall of faces tend to be greater when we have associated an emotional component to them.  _76579650_facecartoons

 Watch below how the Police are using ‘EvoFit’ recognition, of faces rather than actively trying to recall features in their work with witnesses.


Frowd & Bruce also conducted some different research attempting to investigate the importance of internal and external features when recreating faces.  Do we have cognitively process internal and external features differently based upon our familiarity of the individual or is there a difference in accuracy just because internal features are more difficult to replicate? –Read the study here.

The Police are now using ‘super recognisers’ to spot faces in large crowds to assist with identifying criminals!

Your turn

Find out how difficult it is trying to reconstruct a face from memory use the software here to create the face of someone you know but isn’t present.  Consider why it is so difficult.

Further resources


Tea Break Psychology 5- Cognitive Psychology Vs Behaviourism: You decide.

On the go or short of time…but want a little Psychology in your day…..? Welcome to the latest feature on the blog tea break Psychology, quick, easy little snippets of thought provoking information to mull over with a cuppa and a biscuit.

Is this a chimp exhibiting superior cognitive skills or operantly conditioned pattern recognition (Clever Hans effect)?

Have a try at Dot Counting yourself…take a similar test here

The Rise of Cognitive Psychology -From Chunking to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

The reason I’m not a neurobiologist but a cognitive psychologist is that I think looking at brain tissue is often the wrong level of analysis. You have to look at a higher level of organisation.

                                                                                                                     Steven Pinker-Harvard University

The Cognitive approach was initially contrasted with Behaviourism, especially in the US where the highly experimental, yet limited perspective was seemingly running out of steam, where Behaviourism was only interested in the external, observable and measurable phenomena Cognitive Psychology wanted the same experimental approach but took the view that the internal thought processes often compared with a ‘computer‘, was an area of study worth pursuing.

What are the processes within the mind shaping thought?  What were their limitations and are they fixed?  Were they applicable to all, was there a ‘human’ base model that all shared that culture and experience then could mould?  One such example, many will be familiar with terminology like short-term and long-term memory as an example of our early Cognitive Psychology devised simplistic models to represent how complex processes of memory interact. George Miller’s 7(+-2) to represent the ‘capacity’ of Short Term Memory that then produced ‘chunking‘ to seemingly generate a hack to get around the limitations of our own systems.

 For such hard wired or ‘hard-coded‘ (to maintain the often cited computer analogy), these ‘rules of thought’ were systematically studied to provide support for cognitive psychology which became the new face of experimental psychology generating memory tasks to provide evidence of our how these cognitive systems worked.  However, many studies produced basic lists of words and objects to produce effects whilst interesting were deemed to have little ecological validity.

Ecological Validity of early Cognitive based tests

The classic 1935 Stroop Test illustrates both the seeming limitations of our cognitive processes through a task that has very little generalisability to real word tasks. Take an interactive test here.

However, no ‘process’ was left unturned perception, problem-solving, attention, language and memory historically the key areas of Cognitive Psychology.  Whilst conducting highly controlled experimental work to build a body of evidence using a Nomothetic approach, some took an interest in the variations in people’s thinking whilst others took a more idiographic approach interested in the case studies of individuals whose thought processes were seemingly ‘faulty’ or ‘erroneous’. Consider how visual illusions work.  They take advantage on how our perceptual sets are fixed which means anything we are presented with that sits outside of that our mind has to either attempt to adjust or it produces an image that we cannot understand.

The faces of A and B are the same shade.  Place your finger horizontally where they meet to prove it!
The faces of A and B are the same shade. Place your finger horizontally where they meet to prove it!

The Case of HM

 One such case was that of Henry Molaiso (referred to as HM).  Aged 27 needing brain surgery HM had both parts to his  ‘hippocampus‘ removed when receiving surgery to assist his epilepsy.  What wasn’t known then is the Hippocampus structure is now thought to be crucial in the development of new memories.

However, for reasons still not completely understood (often thought to be the result of the heavy medication for the epilepsy) HM had no memory of events for the 11 years prior to the operation and unable to make new ones.  This is referred to a global amnesia constituting a completed lack of memory both prior (retrograde amnesia) and after (anterograde amnesia).  HM therefore, became a man whose memory finished when he was 16 years old without any way to process new memories.  A similar case is that of Clive Wearing watch the video below for an insight into a life where memory doesn’t exist.

Critical Evaluation

B.F. Skinner criticises the cognitive approach as he believes that only external stimulus – response behavior should be studied as this can be scientifically measured.  Therefore, mediation processes (between stimulus and response) do not exist as they cannot be seen and measured. Skinner continues to find problems with cognitive research methods, namely introspection (as used by Wilhelm Wundt) due to its subjective and unscientific nature.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers believes that the use of laboratory experiments by cognitive psychology have low ecological validity and create an artificial environment due to the control over variables. Rogers emphasises a more holistic approach to understanding behaviour.

The information processing paradigm of cognitive psychology views that minds in terms of a computer when processing information. However, there are important difference between humans and computers. The mind does not process information like a computer as computers don’t have emotions or get tired like humans.

Behaviourism assumes that people are born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and are not born with cognitive functions like schemas, memory or perception.

The cognitive approach does not always recognize physical (re: biological psychology) and environmental (re: behaviourism) factors in determining behaviour. (

Take part in some Cognitive Research

Be a participant – If you want to take part in some online-based research, here is a link to some data being collected currently. (Univeristy of St Andrews in Scotland)

Applied Cognitive Psychology -Forensic Psychology

Work by Elizabeth Loftus investigating how easily a ‘normal’ memory can be distorted by simple language is one of the most well-known works in Psychology.  However, not exempt for ecological validity issues it is still one of the most stark examples of how memory is malleable and easily altered.  Particularly useful in the realm of Forensic Psychology and the ease in which eye-witness testimony can be falsely relied upon.   Test your knowledge of that research –here.

Watch the video on as Loftus explains how memory is reconstructive

 ‘like a Wikipedia page you can go and change it….but so can other people‘.

Loftus also discusses her research and its real world setting –  a response to all those low ecological validity claims:

Do criminals have a distinct and measurable set of thinking patterns?  Yochelson and Samenow attempted to find out.

Applied Cognitive Psychology – Clinical Psychology

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)  is a generic term for a therapeutic approach to psychological disorders developed out of a need for an alternative from the more traditional therapeutic Psychoanalytical approach.  Cognitive Behaviour Therapy aims to restructure thoughts of individuals who are suffering from a range of disorders from anxiety and depression.  Do those suffering from depression have a distinct set of thought patterns – Beck tempted to find out? Have a look at Beck’s research into CBT when compared with Drug therapy. Influential Psychologist Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) in the 1950’s with Psychologist Aaron Beck leading the way for psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia from the 1970’s.  CBT is also being used to treat ‘insomnia’. 

Have a look at Beck’s research into CBT when compared with Drug therapy.

Below shows the progression from Cognition (thought) to the Behaviour (Actions) that have been reframed by using CBT, comparing the initial ‘faulty’ thinking.  Mindfulness is fast approaching CBT as a preferred method of dealing with anxiety without drug therapy.  And here is an article critiquing CBT as a useful therapy.

                                          Unhelpful                                                                                helpful                      

Thoughts: He/she ignored me – they don’t like me He/she looks a bit wrapped up in themselves – I wonder if there’s something wrong?
Low, sad and rejected Concerned for the other person, positive
Physical: Stomach cramps, low energy, feel sick None – feel comfortable
Action: Go home and avoid them Get in touch to make sure they’re OK

An interesting infographic outlining CBT;