Every day, Marty Doerschlag moves through the world armed with what amounts to a low-level superpower: He can remember a face forever.
"If I spend about 30 seconds looking at somebody, I will remember their face for years and years and years," he says.
Doerschlag began to recognize his talent well into adulthood, after a series of strange encounters and sightings. There was the man he recognized in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, someone he'd sat behind three years earlier at a Michigan vs. Ohio State football game. (Doerschlag remembered the man but not the score of the game.)
There were the company Christmas parties where he could always remember exactly who was whose spouse. And there was the time he asked a waiter serving him in a Las Vegas restaurant if he'd also served tables many years earlier at a particular restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
"The guy just froze," says Julie Doerschlag, Marty's wife, who was with him for all of these incidents. "It was probably 15 years before. And [the waiter] said, 'Yeah, you're right.'"
But here's the thing. Just as some humans are spectacularly skilled at recognizing faces, others are completely incompetent. Julie Doerschlag is one of them.
In college, Julie frequently offended classmates she'd met just days before when she'd pass them on campus without a hint of recognition. She still cringes when she recounts confusing one colleague for another early in her career. Then there was the time she joyfully hugged the caterer at a party, confused simply by the fact that he had the same hair color as the host whom she hadn't seen in ages.
"I apologize profusely and usually the people just walk away from me," she says. "I'm just used to being embarrassed."
It turns out most of us are more like Julie than Marty. We just don't realize it.
"I think nobody really knew until the last few years just how bad we all are with unfamiliar faces," says Mike Burton, a professor of psychology at the University of York UK. Burton has run a number of facial recognition studies and has concluded that most people are remarkably bad at recognizing the faces of those they know only slightly. And to make matters worse, most people think they are good at this skill when they are not.
To understand more, Burton ran an experiment in which participants were given pairs of photos and asked whether the faces in those photos were of the same person – in essence, a matching game. Some of the faces were familiar to the participants and some were not. Sure enough, people tended to perform better at this task when the faces were familiar. They had a much harder time identifying pairs of unfamiliar faces.
None of this surprised Burton.
"We are fantastic at recognizing faces – of people we know," he says. "We can recognize our family and friends across a huge range of conditions – distances, bad lights, all kinds. But we falsely assume that this means we're quite good at faces in general and in fact, we're not."
And this disconnect – thinking we are good at identifying faces when we aren't – can have serious implications.
"We did some work with passport officers last year where we showed that even passport officers find this a very difficult task and are often inaccurate."
Burton says experience does not seem to improve ability. He studied passport officers who had been on the job for 20 years. They were not necessarily any better than fresh recruits.
For Julie and Marty Doerschlag, the stakes are much lower when it comes to recognizing faces. One outcome they share is the feeling of being vulnerable to awkward situations. Marty has learned not to tell strangers he recognizes them.
"You don't want to make people uncomfortable," he says.
Meanwhile, Julie says she no longer approaches people she might think she vaguely recognizes. And even when she does say hello, she'll ask if she knows them from somewhere. If they respond affirmatively, Julie goes from there. "I say, 'Yes, that's right, good to see you again.' But I don't use 'again,' until I know that they've filled in the blank."
The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.