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How does a newly encountered face become familiar? The effect of within-person variability on adults' and children's perception of identity


Adults and children aged 6 years and older easily recognize multiple images of a familiar face, but often perceive two images of an unfamiliar face as belonging to different identities. Here we examined the process by which a newly encountered face becomes familiar, defined as accurate recognition of multiple images that capture natural within-person variability in appearance. In Experiment 1 we examined whether exposure to within-person variability in appearance helps children learn a new face. Children aged 6–13 years watched a 10-min video of a woman reading a story; she was filmed on a single day (low variability) or over three days, across which her appearance and filming conditions (e.g., camera, lighting) varied (high variability). After familiarization, participants sorted a set of images comprising novel images of the target identity intermixed with distractors. Compared to participants who received no familiarization, children showed evidence of learning only in the high-variability condition, in contrast to adults who showed evidence of learning in both the low- and high-variability conditions. Experiment 2 highlighted the efficiency with which adults learn a new face; their accuracy was comparable across training conditions despite variability in duration (1 vs. 10 min) and type (video vs. static images) of training. Collectively, our findings show that exposure to variability leads to the formation of a robust representation of facial identity, consistent with perceptual learning in other domains (e.g., language), and that the development of face learning is protracted throughout childhood. We discuss possible underlying mechanisms.

Acceptance Date Dec 26, 2016
Publication Date Jan 13, 2017
Journal Cognition
Print ISSN 0010-0277
Publisher Elsevier
Pages 19-30
Keywords face recognition; children's face learning; perceptual development; within-person variability; perceptual learning
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