Rep. McKinney Incident Highlights Face Recognition Issues

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If the Capitol Police Officer had been skilled in face recognition, he might have said, “Great new hairdo, see you later!” With specialized training, incidents like this don’t have to happen.

The Rep. McKinney case could highlight a nation's lack of knowledge about face recognition.

“It’s understandable why the officer didn’t recognize her,” said Dr. Donna Schwontkowski, face recognition expert and author of Million Dollar Memory for Names & Faces. “There are two reasons. The first is called ‘the other race effect’ and the second is a universal lack of training in face recognition (even among law enforcement).”

The other race effect has very little to do with racism. It has more to do with the ability of people to recognize their own race as well as other races.

“The other race effect can feel like racism to many, but it’s about identification skills, not a dislike, prejudice or malice for another race. Most people in a similar situation as the Capitol Police Officer, regardless of their skin color, would have acted the same way.

“Someone who was familiar with face recognition skills would have said, ‘Great new hairdo, see you later!’

Each of us is born with “face recognition software”. Our ability to recognize and differentiate faces continues to develop until about the age of 11, scientists say. After that, it’s training that takes our ability to differentiate faces to the next level.

“When Congresswoman McKinney publicly asked what it was about her face that people can’t remember, she didn’t realize the issue wasn’t about HER face; it was about how people remember a face, which is different in trained and untrained individuals,” Schwontkowski said. “That’s why a hairdo change can make such a difference when someone isn’t trained in face recognition.

“McKinney’s face has almost a dozen differentiating characteristics that would be seen instantly by those with specialized training in face recognition, no matter how she changed her hair or make-up. If police at Capitol Hill were trained, this incident would never be repeated.”

Pilot studies based on Million Dollar Memory for Names & Faces showed that training improved face recognition skills of the public by 176% and 87% for law enforcement.


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