Get access

Processing Differences between Feature-Based Facial Composites and Photos of Real Faces


Curt A. Carlson, Department of Psychology & Special Education, Texas A&M University–Commerce, Commerce, TX 75429, USA.



Computer-generated faces (composites) constructed by select2ing individual facial features (e.g. eyes, nose, mouth) are poorly recognized because this process contrasts with the natural holistic processing of real faces. This result suggests that there should be differences in the cognitive processing of these composites compared with photos of real faces, which would make these stimuli problematic for theories seeking to explain real face processing. We conducted five experiments to test potential conditions for moving composite processing closer to how real face photos are processed, first taking the perspective of researchers who construct composites with a random selection of available features and then taking a perspective closer to police by creating each composite to match a real face photo. Composites with randomly selected features (but configured like real faces) showed no face inversion effect and recognition memory for these composites benefited from increased encoding time, unlike real face photos. Although composites constructed to match real face photos yielded an inversion effect, they still were remembered differently than the photos. Researchers should not use feature-based composites as proxies for real face photos. We conclude with a discussion of alternative methods of constructing composites. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.