Can you tell which of these photos are of the same person?
Photo: Rob Jenkins (University of York)

It could be much easier to pull off the perfect heist than you think. According to a new study from the UK, you don’t need to disguise yourself much in order to fool the average person into thinking they’re looking at someone else. It might even take as little as a goth makeover.

The researchers devised a crafty set of experiments. They first recruited 26 people to pose for photos under three conditions. In the first condition, the models took a normal snapshot. But in the other two, they were told to disguise their faces. They could change their hair color or style and put on makeup, but they weren’t allowed to don things like hats, scarves, or sunglasses that actually concealed their face. In one scenario, they had to be unrecognizable from their normal appearance; in the other, they were told to look like another volunteer. To motivate them to try their very best, they were told they’d get more money for each person who was successfully tricked by their photos.

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After collecting the photos, the authors then ran three experiments with new volunteers. In the first, volunteers who had never seen the models before were asked to match a pair of faces to one another. On average, when volunteers had to match disguised photos to the real face, their accuracy dropped by 30 percent. The volunteers were even less accurate when the disguised models were only trying to obscure their true identity, rather than trying to impersonate another model.

As it turns out, this deception even worked in the second experiment, in which the volunteers were told to be on the lookout for masters of disguise—the accuracy rate was still just as low. It was only in the last experiment, when volunteers were personally familiar with the faces they were shown, that the disguises really failed to fool anyone. Though again, the simple disguises were still better at fooling the volunteers than the disguises made to impersonate someone else.

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Would you be fooled?
Image: Rob Jenkins (University of York)

The study’s findings were published this month in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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According to lead author Eilidh Noyes, a cognitive psychologist and facial recognition expert at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, it’s possible that more elaborate disguises could be even better at fooling us.

“Our models used inexpensive simple disguises and there were no make-up artists involved,” she said in a statement. “If people want to, it’s very easy to change their appearance.”

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There are plenty of reasons why someone might want to hide their true face, such as to evade arrest or to reboot one of the worst movies ever made. But Noyes says that facial recognition research has mostly focused on how well we can tell honest faces apart from one another. In a world filled with unscrupulous people, scientists might be overestimating just how good we are at correctly spotting faces. That potential inaccuracy isn’t just a problem for bouncers trying to catch teens with fake IDs, but for facial recognition systems trying to catch suspected criminals (how these systems should be used is another question for another day).

To that end, Noyes plans to use these photos to start a database of false faces, called FAÇADE, that other researchers can use to conduct similar research. She also plans to publish research looking at how computer facial recognition software fares with disguised faces. Noyes’ earlier, unpublished research has found that computers are slightly better than humans at sniffing out disguised faces, but they’re not as accurate as people who already know the disguised person.

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[Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied via University of Huddersfield]