It takes very little to successfully disguise yourself

A new study finds even simple, easy, appearance alterations fool people

(Getty Images/Big Think)
  • We're not as good at facial recognition as you might think.
  • Who needs Mission Impossible latex masks?
  • You can change your hair or make up and pass for someone else.

Maybe Lois Lane wasn't so stupid after all. A brilliant reporter, yes, but of all the implausibilities of the Superman story, her inability to tell that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person thanks to a pair of glasses strained credulity. Now, though, a study's been published in APA PsycNET that shows it's amazingly easy to hide one's identity with even the simplest of disguises.

Who's who?

Cognitive psychologist Eilidh Noyes of University of Huddersfield in the U.K. co-authored the study with Rob Jenkins of the University of York. They recruited 26 models who were photographed three times:

  • As themselves
  • In a self-designed disguise meant to change their appearance — the study referred to the goal of these disguises as "evasion."
  • Posing as another one of the volunteers, these were "impersonation" disguises.

The means participants were provided to change their appearances were hardly very clever: They could change their hairstyle and/or makeup, or add or remove facial hair. They were not allowed to change their look with articles of clothing likes hats, scarves, or any other garb that wouldn't be allowed in a passport picture.

Noyes tells University of Huddersfield News, "Our models used inexpensive simple disguises and there were no make-up artists involved. If people want to, it's very easy to change their appearance."

Other study participants were then asked to identify the person in each photo. For the evasion images, 30 percent of them got it wrong, even when they knew they were looking at people who might be in disguise. The impersonation pix weren't as successful at fooling people.

At the conclusion of the study, all of the images were collected into a database called "FAÇADE" that's being offered to programmers and researchers developing facial recognition software.

“You look familiar.”

Battisti nabbed

(ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Apparently, the researchers have documented something criminals already know. Alleged murderer Cesare Battisti successfully evaded capture for 37 years

Using simple disguises and hiding often in plain sight. He was finally captured this year. Brazilian police published a rogue's gallery of his likely appearance prior to his arrest. (The third one in the top row was closest to his appearance at the time of arrest.)

Sorry, Lois

About our intrepid Daily Planet reporter, however: Apparently participants who knew the subjects were less likely to be fooled, so she's not quite off the hook.

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