We may be closer than ever to answering a question that has troubled comic-book fans for decades: just how does Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, get away with such a flimsy disguise?
Finally, researchers at the University of York have been able to show that small alterations to a person’s appearance, such as wearing glasses, can significantly hinder positive facial identification.
While the research has the ability to settle arguments over whether Clark Kent’s disguise is sufficient – and kill dead a million awful comedian’s jokes on the subject – the research does have some serious implications as well.
“The question of whether the inhabitants of Metropolis could be realistically deceived by Superman’s simple disguise has been rumbling since the comic books first arrived on the stands, but the question becomes a serious one when applied to real-world security issues,” said Dr Robin Kramer from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.
“When a security guard checks a passport photo against the person standing in front of them, they do not have the luxury of familiarity with that face, as Lois does with Superman/Clark Kent. This is something we wanted to investigate further, because we know from previous studies that people are relatively poor at matching faces in various guises when the person is unfamiliar to them.”
The test that was used to prove glasses can impact how one person is distinguished from another involved showing participants a number of faces in various ‘natural’ poses.
The participants were then asked to decide whether each pair of images showed the same person or not.
Images were shown in three categories – pairs of faces that wore glasses, images where neither person wore glasses and photographs where only one person wore glasses.
In cases where both of the faces wore glasses or where neither wore glasses, accuracy was around 80%. However, when only one of the two faces wore glasses, performance was approximately 6% lower, a statistically significant decrease.
The results suggest that people generally find it difficult to correctly match unfamiliar and uncontrolled face images, but they are significantly worse when glasses are worn by only one of the faces.
“In real terms, glasses would not prevent Lois recognising that Clark is in fact Superman as she is familiar with him. For those who do not know him, however, this task is much more difficult, and our results show that glasses do disrupt our ability to recognise the same unfamiliar person from photo-to-photo,” said Dr Kay Ritchie from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.
“We hope that this research can be used by legal authorities to help inform future policies on identification for security purposes, particularly in the UK where individuals who normally wear glasses are required to remove them for their identification cards.”
The research, Disguising Superman: How glasses affect unfamiliar face matching, is published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.