Taking the Famous Faces Test

This week I took the Famous Faces, which tests for prosopagnosia or faceblindness.

Prosopagnosia, commonly known as faceblindness or facial agnosia, is an impairment in the ability to recognize faces. Although there isn’t a lot of research to support a conclusive link between ASD and prosopagnosia, some degree of faceblindness seems to be common in people with Asperger’s.

Some of the signs of prosopagnosia:

  1. Failure to recognize a friend or family member, especially when you encounter them unexpectedly
  2. Tendency to remember or recognize people based on their hairstyle, gait, voice or other defining non-facial feature
  3. Relying features like hair style/color, facial hair or eyeglasses to recognize people you know well
  4. Failure to recognize people out of context
  5. Failure to recognize yourself in the mirror or in photos

I have all of these except the last one. If my daughter changes her hairstyle or I haven’t seen her in a while, I won’t recognize her right away. I locate my husband in a crowded place by the way he walks, what he’s wearing or his voice.

I rarely recognize people out of context and have actually said to more than one person, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you out of context.” And that was before I knew anything about faceblindness.

For now, I’ll leave the background on faceblindness short because in researching this test, I found enough information for at least one more post.

Measuring Prosopagnosia

I’ve seen three different types of tests that “measure” prosopagnosia. One is a famous faces test which removes hair and other identifying features from the faces of famous people, requiring you to identity them by facial features alone.

Another type of test shows a series of faces and asks you to identify which of them belong to a set of 20 faces viewed at the start of the test. I took one online (sadly it’s no longer available) and came out in the bottom 20% of scores. My poor working memory probably didn’t help.

Finally, there is a type of test that digitally alters a face and asks you identify what is “wrong” with the face or which face among three (1 altered and 2 not) is different. This measures your ability to recognize “normal” vs. “abnormal” facial structure, a task that is easier for people who aren’t faceblind.

For example, can you tell at a glance what is wrong with two of the three faces below (answer in the caption):

The face on the left has closer-set eyes and the face on the right has a raised mouth. The middle face is unaltered. (Barton et al, 2004)
The face on the left has closer-set eyes and the face on the right has a raised mouth. The middle face is unaltered. (Barton et al, 2004)

All of these tests obviously have flaws. A better test might be a series of questions based on the list of prosopagnosia traits, but that doesn’t seem to exist. There is a visual test that is supposed to be accurate at diagnosing prosopagnosia but it’s more time-consuming–we can take that one if folks are interested.

Taking the Test

You can take the Famous Faces test at Test My Brain. Choose it from the list of available tests, agree to the terms and answer the short demographic survey. There are 20 celebrities to identify–it took me about 10 minutes to finish but some of the faces I needed to study for a while, trying to picture them with varying hairstyles, before I could come up with a guess.

Scoring the Test

I did well, but my results may have been influenced by the fact that I’ve taken this test before.

I scored slightly above average but I had an advantage because I've taken the test before.
I scored slightly above average but I had an advantage because I’ve taken the test before.

The first time I took Famous Faces, I thought George Clooney was Sean Connery and I mistook Nicole Kidman for Rosie O’Donnell. This time around I got George Clooney right but still missed Nicole Kidman. I also got Angelina Jolie, David Beckham, Fred Astaire, John F Kennedy Jr, Uma Thurman and Susan Sarandon wrong. If the photos had included hair I probably would have missed Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman (because most blonde white actresses look alike to me) and David Beckham (unless his tattooed torso was included!).

The Bottom Line

The reliability of using famous faces tests to actually diagnose prosopagnosia is poor, but a low score may be indicative of some degree of faceblindness. If there’s enough interest, I’ll hunt down and do a write up on a more reliable test that’s used for clinical diagnosis of prosopagnosia.

49 thoughts on “Taking the Famous Faces Test”

  1. I don’t feel that I have much of a problem with this; I do have some trouble with recognizing people out of context, and I realize that I often do place people by height or something other than face. But I feel it’s pretty minimal compared to how affected I’ve read you can be by prosopagnosia. But I’ve also been an artist, from a family of artists, since I was a child. I’ve been encouraged to study faces and bone structure etc. In that vein, what struck me as very unreliable about the Famous Faces test is that because they are celebrities, we can “study” them all we want without the real life consequences of being being caught staring or getting involved in social interaction – it seems like that would render the test results very unreliable.

      1. I got 97% as well, but perhaps I cheated a bit, I knew who the person was, (movies they were in/what they were famous for) but didn’t always actually remember their name.
        I opened another tab and Googled, ‘Watergate’ to find Richard Nixon, ‘The Matrix’ to find Keanu Reeves, ‘Grease’ for John Travolta, ‘The Mask’ for Jim Carey, and ‘Kramer, Elaine’ for Jerry Seinfeld.
        The one I got wrong was confusing Condaleeza Rice with Michelle Obama, which probably wouldn’t please either one.
        Without looking those things up I would have got a much worse score, but I did ‘recognise’ nearly all of them.

        In social situations I do much worse, I never remember anyone’s name, nor do really remember who is who. I usually don’t recognise people out of context. For film and TV stars I do better because the actors name is usually in the titles/credits and enough repetition makes it sink in. I think I’m fairly good at recognising celebrities voice-overs in commercials etc.

    1. 97% is terrific. I don’t think faceblindness is universal to ASD but it seems more common in people on the spectrum than in the general population? Your mention of being trained to look at faces is interesting because the area of the brain that recognizes faces also seems to play a role in recognizing anything that a person is expert in (birds, cars, engine models, whatever).

      I get accused of staring all the time and I’m still horribly face blind. When I don’t recognize someone, I’m seeing their face, but not making the connection to a face that I already know. They are literally a stranger to me (including family members) until they speak or I recognize some specific characteristic about them.

  2. I got 100% an I’m a female aspie. Perhaps it depends on where a person with ASD’s particular strengths are, because my visual processing / patterns and problem solving are my savant skill; I can detect patterns in things quickly and easily and that includes faces. Also, I am one of those aspies always accused of staring at people. Perhaps some aspies have “face blindness” with people they actually know (as opposed to celebrities) because they don’t generally look at faces in conversation?

    1. Wow, 100% is really impressive. It makes sense that if you’re good with visual patterns you could translate that into faces. I’m a starer too, but still very faceblind (I mentioned some more about this in the reply above). I think it has more to do with visual processing than with gaze direction (at least for me).

  3. I got 57% which was higher than I expected given the problems I have recognizing people in real life. I have some difficulty putting names to faces, but it’s much more pronounced when trying to visualize a face given a name. A few of the faces in the test took me a while before I could recall the name and with most of the ones I got “wrong” there was a vague feeling of recognition but no name came to mind. The only one I misidentified was Condoleezza Rice, who I thought was Oprah Winfrey. When Oprah turned up later on I did get her right (with a wry smile to myself), but it’s notable that the one that gave me most problems was one of only two from a different ethnic group to me.

    1. I did better than expected too, but some of the people in this test have very unique faces (to me). I recognize them not because of their whole face, but because of specific features. I know what you mean about that vague sense of knowing that the face is familiar but not being able to come up with a name. Frustrating.

  4. I got 90%, but my problem isn’t recognizing the faces as much as remembering the name or where I’ve seen the person. For instance, I think Robin Williams is brilliant, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name (I wrote “Nanoo Nanoo” in the box because that’s all I could remember. There’s a woman where we take our dogs when we go on vacation, and she showed up at a knitting class at a yarn store and started chatting me up, and she looked familiar, but I had no idea where I knew her from since she was out of context. Now I know it’s Sue From The Kennel, and I’ve added her as “Sue From the Kennel and the Knitting Class at Sow’s Ear” to my mental database. Because we share a common interest – knitting – I think I would be able to remember her now in another context, though it might take a minute or two depending on where I encountered her. If I don’t share a common interest with someone or have a common experience, then it’s incredibly hard for me to remember who they are.

    1. Situational association is important to me too. I walk right by neighbors in the mall or the post office, because to me, they don’t “belong” there. They belong in my neighborhood walking their dog. It’s so embarrassing to not recognize people I’ve known for years.

  5. See, I don’t think I have prosopagnosia (I’m not good at picturing faces, but I can usually recognize them??). There are a few traits that I feel as though I’m missing, sometimes. I don’t think I have synesthesia, either (but my mom does).

    1. I don’t think prosopagnosia or synthesthesia (which I don’t have either) are considered core traits of ASD, but they do seem to have a higher rate of occurrence among ASD folks that the general population.

  6. The face you just saw was Ronald Reagan.

    You said you thought it was Gorbachev.

    lol. Does that count? It’s almost right isn’t it? (i am really failing this test)

    yeah, got 46%

  7. I got a 100%, 28/28, but 2 were disregarded because I didn’t know Tony Blair by face (only name) and some guy from Star Trek. I’m really good at facial recognition, same with voice. I usually recognize actors when they are in movies faster than my parents do. Like the receptionist from Becker is on Charlie Sheen’s new show. My mom thought she was familiar, but I instantly recognized her. I wonder if the amount of tv we watch affects the outcome…I watch a lot.

    1. I guess my “above average” score isn’t as above average as I thought. 🙂 I didn’t get Tony Blair or a Star Trek guy so I guess the faces aren’t the same for everyone. I’m quite terrible at recognizing actors and actresses. I usually look at the cast list before a movie so I don’t spend the entire movie thinking of the actors as “the guy that looks like Liam Neeson and the guy that looks like Nathan Fillion” when in fact they are Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Renner.

  8. Ahhhh! I find that face used as the normal/abnormal example really freaky to look at, but I can’t properly articulate why. I think it’s having the three almost-but-not-quite identical faces side by side. It gave me something akin to that feeling when you put new glasses on for the first time, and everything looks clearer, but also somehow wrong.

    I did better in the test than I expected- the only ones I didn’t get were people I didn’t know. Maybe I find pictures of faces easier to identify than actual faces, because I’m rubbish at facial recognition IRL.

    1. I found the three faces disconcerting too. Perhaps because they have subtle “abnormalities” that I couldn’t pick out until I read the description? It could be that pictures are easier to identify. There is also the added advantage that we know we’re going to be seeing famous people so our brain narrows down the options a bit. IRL, I doubt I’d recognize Ben Stiller if he walked by me on the street. I literally bumped into Sean Hannity in Hawaii and didn’t know who he was until another person in the store walked over and asked for his autograph after he drew attention to himself by apologizing.

    2. Yeah, I thought the faces were a bit creepy, too. They’re kind of uncanny: youtube.com/watch?v=CNdAIPoh8a4

  9. I got 75% correct (slightly below average), but I think I could have done better than that if I’d taken my time with it. But I think this test has a problem: If part of prosopagnosia is difficulty recognizing faces *in context,* then telling the people being tested that they’re going to be looking at pictures of celebrities (which provides a sort of context) must skew the results. I don’t think I have prosopagnosia, but I do think I have pretty low facial recognition skills. There was one time my sister came to visit me at my old university, and when she showed up I didn’t recognize her at all; I mean, I was looking for her and saw someone who I was pretty sure looked like my sister, but I wasn’t 100% sure it was her until after she called my name. After my first meeting with my therapist, she offered to pick me up at the bus stop and give me a ride to her office (because I have to take the bus from my tiny home town over to hers), and I knew I’d have to look up her photo online later to study her face and make sure I’d recognize her when I saw her. So, even though I did alright on this test, I don’t know if I’d recognize any of the people in it if I saw them face-to-face.

    1. Yes, after some of the comments above I was thinking that context is probably playing a role in this test. I have often experienced not recognizing family members and tend to rely on voices a lot, too. I always feel like there’s a period of getting used to someone’s face again after I haven’t seen them for a long time.

  10. 100%. I recognize familiar faces easily, plus I know the context by the title of the test. I have trouble recognizing *new* faces. It takes a month or two to code a new face–I suspect I am memeorizing the face with different expressions until the mental “file” is complete. I have a post in the works aboutthis. I am a cinefile and watch lots of movies so I can recall some of the pictures which were taken for the movies–the John Travolta one is from “Staying Alive” press junket and Cher picture I saw on the cover on the Enquirer in the early 1980’s–the article was about one of her skimpy dresses. I have a memory bank filled up with this sort of information, but I can’t tell apart my son’s team without using mental memory tricks.

    Cool test. I love dropping by for fun and charming comments! 🙂

    Lori

    1. Wow, that’s impressive that you can identify where the photos are from! The idea of coding faces by storing multiple impressions of different expressions is interesting. I also wonder if a situation like a team is especially hard because most of the kids are similar in age and you see them mostly in a group and the environment is generally very distracting with lots of other sensory information to manage?

      Glad you enjoy the tests! I’m starting to run out of ideas . . .

      1. Ah, my son’s team is his teachers. I don’t think I could ever tell kids apart! 🙂

        I like your tests because they are very concrete and something I can talk about–you take a test, get results and discuss. I am fond of social justice issues but it takes a great deal of mental energy and time to forge a coherent answer.

        A thought for your Tuesdays–could you poll your readers? I love reading about other’s perceptions, strengths, and areas of concern. It might be a good way to help others discover coping skills. You present helpful information with great clarity and skill. I still appeciate your alexthymia article–it’s a big helper in our household!

        Cheers!

        1. Oh, his teachers! Went right over my head. 🙂

          I like the tests for the same reasons. A poll sounds like fun! I was going to say what kind of questions should I ask, but how about if this Tuesday I open up the comments to see what kind of questions we’d all like to ask each other? Then we can have a discussion post the following week, either where we answer the questions we feel like answering in the comments or if people prefer I can set up an anonymous survey at survey monkey and bring the answers back in anonymously in a post for discussion.

          I really like getting everyone else’s POV too, so this idea has me all excited. Thank you for suggesting it!

  11. I got a 40%, but I believe it to be mostly because I only know 6 of those celebrities, and which I’v seen in many movies or got glasses. I didn’t recognize most of them mostly because, well, I don’t give a damn about Star System, nor politicals affairs in the USA (I’m from Canada, so we don’t usually study your presidents in class, thus I knew the name but it was all).
    Most of the time, it can take me almost two or three months to be able to recognize someone even in a everyday context. And if the person change his or her hairstyle of clothing, I’m lost. Once, I didn’t even recognize my own boyfriend because he got a hair cut and was wearing a format clothing. It can be the same with my family too. The ankward moment when your sister walk to you in the bus, with her hair blond instead of pink and you don’t speak to her, thinking she’s just a total freak for sitting next to you when there is free space elsewhere…

    But it seems like it doesn’t happen with every people I see. I think it’s more like because most of use don’t usually take a good look at the face of people we’re not used to see, but rather look at the clothing of hair at first, it could explain why we rather use those to recognize people, no? Well, that mostly the case for me.

    Thanks again for all of those interesting informations!

    1. I think being not immersed in US pop culture is definitely a disadvantage on this one.

      Don’t feel too bad about not recognizing your boyfriend with his new haircut. I’ve been married to my husband for 25 years and a couple of weeks ago I struggled to locate him in a small restaurant. He went to get a table while I went to the restroom and when I came out, I realized I had no idea what he was wearing (how I’d normally find him). Fortunately he saw me looking completely bewildered and waved both hands to get my attention. So embarrassing.

  12. I’ve taken at least two such tests in the past and always scored exceptionally well, however I’ve still managed to not recognise someone I worked with when I met them again at the supermarket half an hour after leaving work. Being able to recognise people seems to be tied to context for me, if I know I’m being tested for it, I’ll do exceptionally well, but in daily life I’m more likely to interact with people who seem to know me well but who I can’t place at all.

    1. I agree about context being a big part of both difficulties in daily life and being able to pass these tests reasonably well. Have you taken the test where you’re asked to look at set of faces beforehand and then decide whether the faces presented in the test were part of the set shown at the beginning? I wish it was still available online.

      1. I have done it, yes, and I think I still did unusually well on that, but then it was really a test of visual memory. If I’m remembering it correctly I wasn’t being expected to recognise the faces with different expressions, from different angles or in different situations. Just remember if I’d seen that picture before.

        I understand there’s a type of faceblindness where the facial recognition centre of the brain produces corrupted information, meaning you literally can’t interpret faces unless they’re upside down. Faces effectively become a blind stop because the brain’s passing their visual interpretation over to an area that doesn’t work. This is considerably rarer than the type that’s relatively common among autistic people, but it seems to be the only type that couldn’t be gamed by simply having good visual memory.

        1. I utterly and completely failed that one. Mostly I had to guess because except for a couple of distinct (to me) faces the rest all blurred together.

          That’s interesting about the upside down faces. How on earth do people go about discovering this stuff? I’ve been reading a lot of Oliver Sacks and his case histories tend toward narrow and obscure brain glitches, some of which sound terrible. Can you imagine seeing everything out of your right eye in color and everything out of your left in black and white? D:

          1. I think if you personally found it impossible to perceive faces unless they were upside down, you’d have easily worked that one out by the age you could talk. It doesn’t need a scientist to come in from the outside and ‘discover’ you.

            Studies of that type of faceblindness led to cool optical illusions like the ‘Thatcher Effect’ that prove that typical people can’t immediately see anything wrong with faces where the eyes and mouth have been flipped upside down, as long as they’re viewed upside down:

            http://www.moillusions.com/2012/06/thatcher-effect-optical-illusion.html

  13. I always find that these online tests for facial recognition, facial expressions and tones of voice don’t reflect my real-world ability. I always score high on reading people’s emotions, for example, when in fact I can rarely read people in real life, meaning I am very easy to play jokes on and I miss non-verbal cues as well as appearing insensitive to people’s emotions. From my scores, you’d think my recognition of those things was finely-tuned.

    Similarly, I scored 58% on this test and did reasonably well with faces of people I was familiar with. Unfortunately, there have been times I didn’t recognise my own family members, and I have learnt not to approach people I think I might know in public because it’s often a complete stranger.

    1. The tests tend to be very artificial. One of the problems seems to be that when we’re taking the test we’re focused only on one aspect of social interaction whereas in real life we have a ton of things to sort out and decipher. Filtering incoming social data and finding the relevant details is definitely not one of my strengths.

      1. That’s exactly it. As with my perception of anything, I don’t know what to filter out and I end up noticing what fabric someone’s wearing but not the fact that they’re a family friend. I have attention to detail… just not always the relevant details.

  14. I have a tendency to not recognize a friend out of context. Like when I’m with my grandparents, I’m much more likely to recognize my friends around their area because it’s a larger context, if that makes sense, but where I live, I once didn’t even recognize my best friend until her brothers showed up and I made the connection. Oops.

  15. See, I got a pretty decent score on this test, but I DO have problems recognizing people, especially out of context. For example, I have a favorite cashier at a grocery store that I shop at. I go to her line WHENEVER possible. A few days ago, she came in to shop where I work. At first, I did not recognize her at all. The second glance, I thought, “I think I know her from somewhere?” The fourth glance, “I THINK she is the cashier from the grocery store? I think that is her hair, but it is not quite right.” but I wasn’t confident enough to greet her like someone I knew. It wasn’t until she asked me, “Don’t I see you at the grocery store pretty often?” and mentioned something about not having been able to do her hair that day, that I was really confident that it was her.

    When I think, and see pictures in my mind, nearly everything is like a movie reel. Think of bananas? See a movie of going through a grocery aisle, all of the bananas, can visualize every bit of a banana from several angles. I feel myself peeling a banana, taste the banana, have several memories that are as vivid as if I were there. I think of my husband’s face? I CAN feel it in my mind, but not while seeing it in my mind. The “feeling” memory is separate. All that I CAN see is like a still, expressionless photograph. When I try to imagine him smiling, what winds up popping into my mind is a stereotyped “Guy Smiling” picture, usually just from the nose down.

    But, I still scored well on this test. I think that is because, even though they cut the hair off of everyone, very often they still used somewhat well-circulated pictures or iconic images, and I recognized the image. The ones that I got wrong were the ones where I had never seen that particular photograph before. I guarantee you that if I ran into Princess Diana at the corner store, I would 1) not notice her, or 2) if she struck up a conversation with me, not recognize her, and thus be unable to tell anyone that the Princess Di. conspiracies are true.

    It could also be because my husband is a bit of a movie buff, and always seems flabbergasted when I don’t know who a particular celebrity or actor is, so I’ve spent the last few years paying way more attention than I want to to who some of these people are. Ha!

    1. I can really relate to what you say about being able to feel things in your mind more so than “see” them in 3-D. Much of my imagination seems to be based more on nonvisual (or maybe just not very visually vivid) experiences of things – sort of like text based stories with illustrations or something. It’s hard to describe but when I read your description of the bananas that feels very close.

      I think you’re right about the celebrity photos being iconic ones. I suspect if they used casual shots of say, Tom Cruise walking down the street in New York rather than of him from Top Gun (just an example, I don’t think he was actually in the test) it would be much harder to pick him out. Which is exactly the situation you describe with the cashier. She wasn’t in her “iconic” look that you’re used to – store uniform, usual hairstyle, usual place – so she was much harder to place for you.

  16. I’m not at all faceblind. It’s more the opposite – I recognize faces that I’ve seen only once or twice (like on the subway), even when I see them again in a completely different context. In the test I just got one famous face (of the ones I’m familiar with) wrong. It seems that I hardly forget anything anyway.

    It feels like everything I’ve ever experienced is in my memory somewhere, just not always accessible – like a huge warehouse that has a very small door which I can look through. I remember every song text I’ve ever heard, and it’s all right there when the song starts. I just couldn’t sing it by myself without the cue.

    There are other tests concerning faces that I fail miserably at, though. There’s a test that shows only the area around eyes of several faces, and the testee is asked with choosing which expression the face should convey (like angry, sleepy, etc.). I hope my attempt at explaining it makes some sense. Anyway, in that test I hardly get any answer right. What’s especially baffling to me is that the eyes that belong to happy or friendly facial expressions always seem angry or aggressive to me. Has anyone else taken such a test? If so, what’s your result?

  17. I have a tougher time with people I know personally than with this test. I scored an 82% but thought Paul McCartney was Elvis, among a few other silly mixups. At least half or more of them looked like complete strangers at first, but after 2-5 seconds became obvious. I do not think that race or gender played a significant role.

  18. I pass all the tests, but I still cannot recognize people in real life. They come up to me a lot and I do n ot know who they are. The trouble is that the tests are done in a period of time. In real life, it takes me a few days to forget. If you tested my on these face in these “tests” I would not know them. The famous people I do get. Mine started after an accident, so that is why. Everyone I meet after the accident is subject to my forgetting. I deal with it by being nice to everyone!

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