As a person with prosopagnosia, I am constantly amazed by how accurate facial recognition is for most people most of the time. I will never understand what it is like for people who can recognize faces.

Just as puzzling to me, however, is when facial recognition goes wrong among people who presumably have no substantive difficulties with it. Within the criminal justice system, this is a fairly well documented problem. Much research has been done on this topic, and a summary of one particular case, some statistics related to criminal misidentification, in addition to guidelines for how to acquire more accurate witness identification can be found here at the web site of The Innocence Project:

It is not just with criminals that many people tend to misidentify. I have witnessed, on a number of occasions, people who have mistaken one person for another. On rare occasions, sometimes, people have even misidentified me.

One such occasion occurred a few years ago when I was in New York City with a friend of mine from college. My friend was very unique physically, because he was particularly short. I had little difficulty picking him out from a crowd as a result, and finding him on the college campus was usually a very easy task.

We had gone to New York City to see a Broadway show, but as we had arrived a few hours early, we went to do some sightseeing. While we were walking around, somebody approached us in a very friendly manner, gave my friend a big hug after seeing him, and then gave me a similar hug. I am accustomed to not recognizing people all of the time, so my usual course of action when I encounter an unfamiliar person who acts in a familiar manner is to respond in kind and hope for enough contextual clues from the conversation to allow me to connect all of the dots and create a meaningful social interaction for myself.

The conversation began, and it was obvious that this was a very good friend of my college buddy. They had known each other for years and were doing some catching up. The conversation was relatively short, and when it was over, once we were a safe distance away, I asked my friend about my part in this social interaction. My friend informed me there is no way his buddy could possibly have known me.

So here I had been acting in a manner I hoped was socially appropriate, and I came to find out that my friend's buddy was doing exactly the same thing I was, perhaps even feeling just as silly about it.

This particular incident, in addition to the enormous quantity of my own misidentifications, has caused me to re-evaluate the importance and reliability which I had attributed to other people's facial recognition skills.

Up until the time I began communicating with fellow prosopagnosics online, I had believed that facial recognition was a magical ability which everybody who did not have prosopagnosia had superior and equal skills. My current theory is that facial recognition is more like a bell curve. On a scale of one to ten, where one is "I never remember a face," and 10 is "I never forget a face," most people with prosopagnosia seem to be in the range of 2 to 4. Using the same scale, I believe that most people with unimpaired facial recognition skills would be in the range of 7 to 8.

Even so, that leaves a lot of room for error. Sometimes, such errors can be extremely costly, as The Innocence Project points out so eloquently. Many people have been convicted of crimes they never committed due to eyewitness misidentification.  

While the consequences of misidentification can be very serious, sometimes, they are just silly.  There are many examples of celebrity look-alikes which have led to a number of interesting situations. Of course, I am rather immune to such situations. Sure, I know who the celebrities are by name, but as I wrote in Stranger Danger, I can shake hands with some very well-known people and still not be aware of their celebrity status until after the fact, and that is only if I get lucky and somebody tells me.

More often, although still rare, I have seen people attempt to talk to people they think they recognize. The ensuing social faux-pas mimics so closely many of my own experiences. Yes, there is some embarrassment, but I think this is considered socially acceptable as long as it does not happen too frequently. With me, the embarrassment factor is enormous because of the repetitive nature of it, which causes me to take fewer risks in trying to identify people. I know my skills are poor, after all. Why do I need to prove it to myself and other people again?

The good news is that I often choose to disclose to the people I interact with that I have prosopagnosia. This has become a lot easier to do over the past few years due, in no small part, to the advocacy work I have done to bring prosopagnosia onto the radar screen for many people who had never heard about it before. I'm really proud of the work I have done in this area. I find it just a little ironic that some people have been able to identify me correctly as a result. I just hope they don't mistake me for somebody else.

©2011, Glenn Alperin

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