Department of Psychology
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Welcome to the Face Perception Lab



Studies involving preschool children

Recognizing faces. Although young children are able to recognize their friends and family, several studies have shown that they are more likely than adults to make errors when attempting to recognize the identity of individual faces. In previous studies we showed that this is because they are less sensitive than adults to some cues to facial identity (e.g., differences among faces in the spacing of features).

One reason why adults are sensitive to facial identity is that they rely on something scientists call norm-based coding. Each time adults see a new face they compare it to a prototypical face that is the average of all faces previously encountered. Individual faces, then, are encoded in terms of how they differ from average (e.g., Bill has a larger-than-average nose and his eyes are closer together than average). Adults appear to have several prototypes that represent different face categories (e.g., male/female; child/adult; Caucasian/Asian), making their face recognition more efficient. We are investigating the development of this norm-based coding. Lindsey Short (a PhD student) recently showed that 5-year-old children do have a face prototype; however, their prototype appears to be generic, making them less sensitive than adults to differences among individual faces. We are exploring the role of experience in the development of race-specific norms by comparing children in the Niagara Region (who primarily experience Caucasian faces) with children in Jinhua, China (who primarily experience Chinese faces), and children in Toronto (who have abundant experience with both Caucasian and Chinese faces).

Both young adults and senior citizens appear to be more sensitive to differences among young adult faces than to comparable differences among older adult faces—a pattern that may impact interactions with older adults. To better understand how this happens, Anne Hackland (an undergraduate student) is currently testing 3-year-old children on a task in which they are asked to make various judgements about both young adult (“Moms”) and older adult (“Grandmas”) faces.

Recognizing Emotional Expressions. Matt Horner (an M.A. student) recently showed that preschool children resemble older children and adults in at least one aspect of emotion perception: their ability to recognize emotional facial expressions is influenced by body postures. When, for example, a sad face is shown on a fearful body posture, children are likely to mislabel the face and call it ‘scared’.  Up until recently, we have only been able to present children with static photos of faces and body postures.  In the real world, of course, faces and bodies are in motion and so studies with static images are somewhat limited. In a new study, Nicole Nelson (a postdoctoral fellow from Boston College) is showing children films of a woman displaying a range of emotions; we ask children to label each emotion and record where they look during each display. Recognizing emotions is critical for successful social interactions (e.g., for feeling empathy and avoiding danger); investigating how this skill develops will help us to understand the conditions under which children are likely to make errors.


Studies involving older children

We are investigating the development of face prototypes. Adults walk around the world with an average face in their mind (i.e., with a face prototype). They rate faces like the prototype as most attractive and they rate faces farther away from that prototype as most distinctive. They also find it easier to recognize the identity of faces that are farther from the prototype. This prototype is updated continuously: if adults are repeatedly shown distorted faces (such as the way faces appear in a convex or concave mirror), they report that slightly distorted faces are more attractive than unaltered faces, presumably because their prototype has shifted towards the distorted faces. This effect is temporary. Recent studies have shown that adults have multiple face prototypes that code for different face categories (e.g., male/female; young/old; Caucasian/Asian). Lindsey Short (a PhD student) has shown that 8-year-old children have race-specific face prototypes; if they view a series of Caucasian and Asian faces distorted in opposite directions (e.g., Caucasian faces with eyes unusually close together and Chinese faces with eyes unusually far apart), their Caucasian and Chinese face prototypes shift in opposite directions (i.e., they start to find Caucasian faces with close-together eyes but Chinese faces with wide-apart eyes very attractive). Lindsey is now investigating the extent to which children’s reliance on race-specific norms depends on social influences. Can we, for example, reduce this effect if the children are portrayed as friends? This work has important implications for face perception and social interactions in our increasingly global world.

Recognizing Facial Identity.  Several studies have indicated that people have an own-age bias (i.e., that they are most accurate when recognizing own-age faces). However, recent evidence suggests that all age groups (infants, young children, young adults, and older adults) are more accurate when asked to recognize young adult faces than they are for any other face category. This is likely because during the first few months of life most of the people an infant encounters are young adults and we know that early experience matters. To better understand this, Valentina Proietti (a visiting PhD student from Milano, Italy) is testing children on a task that provides a very accurate measure of their sensitivity to identity in child versus young adult faces. The task is presented as a game of hide-and-go-seek in which the child is asked to push a button each time they see a target identity (e.g., Betty) or someone who looks like her. Valentina is conducting a similar study with older adults. 

Recognizing Emotions. Quite a bit is known about children’s ability to label facial expressions. Nicole Nelson (a postdoctoral fellow in the lab) is asking two novel questions. In one study, she is investigating children’s ability to use facial expressions to guess what someone else has experienced.  Children will observe an adult open a box and
experience an emotion caused by the object inside the box. Children will be asked to guess what object is in the box, based on the adult’s expression. In another study, Nicole is investigating how children learn about unusual or uncommon expressions. How, for example, do children come to see expressions as displaying ‘guilt’ or ‘pride’? Nicole is showing children pairs of expressions, some of which are common and some of which are uncommon, and asking them to find the person who feels  ‘scared’ or ‘proud’. She will record where children look during the task in order to better understand the learning process.


Studies involving adults:

We are in the midst of conducting several studies involving young adults:

  • Are adults more sensitive to emotional expressions in own-age and own-race faces than in other-age and other-race faces?
  • How sensitive are adults to cues to identity in child faces? In young adult faces? In older adult faces?
  • How accurate are adults and children when guessing how old someone is?
  • In our newest study, Thalia Semplonius (an M.A. student) is investigating adults’ ability to recognize faces and objects when they are presented in an ecologically valid manner. Thalia is showing pictures of street scenes in order to better understand how adults allocate their attention and what they remember.

Studies involving Older Adults


The vast majority of research in the field of face perception has focused on young adults and on early development. We have become intrigued by two questions. 1) How does face perception change as adults become older? 2) How do people perceive the faces of older adults?


Separate Prototypes for Young vs Older Adult Faces?

Lindsey Short (PhD student) has been investigating the extent to which people have separate representations of young versus older adult faces. In a series of studies, she has shown participants pairs of faces. One member of each pair was unaltered (i.e., an original photograph) and the other was slightly distorted (e.g., features were compressed/expanded). In one task, participants were asked which face looked more expanded. In a second task, participants were asked which face looked more typical (‘normal’). We were surprised to discover that both young adults and older adults were much better at judging normality in young adult faces than in older adult faces. In contrast, their performance on the ‘which face is more expanded task’ did not differ as a function of facial age. This indicates that adults can distinguish among seniors’ faces, but that they do not have a sense of what a typical senior looks like! Again, early experience seems to matter; even seniors who have abundant social interactions with older adults perform better with young adult faces. We are continuing this line of research to better understand why our perception of older faces is relatively poor.

Judging Traits

Both adults and children can make snap judgements about personality traits after only briefly viewing a face posing a neutral expression. For example, adults and children are able to guess how aggressively adult men are likely to play a computer game, just by glancing at their faces. Lindsey Short is investigating whether older adults are able to do so. We anticipate developing this line of research into a full-scale study of trait perception in senior citizens.

Expertise with Older Faces?

As noted for older children, there is a debate in the literature about whether people are better at recognizing own-age faces or whether all age groups are better at recognizing young adult faces than faces of children or older adults. Valentina Proietti (a visiting PhD student from Italy) is asking this question in a very novel way. Seniors are shown a target face (e.g., Betty) and then asked to press a button each time they see that target or someone who looks like her. Faces vary in the extent to which they resemble the target, providing us a very good measure of sensitivity to identity. If seniors are more sensitive to identity in own-age faces, they should find the target more often when the target is an older woman. If they are more sensitive to identity in young adult faces, they should find the target more often when the target is a young woman. This research is very important; difficulty in recognizing faces of a particular age group has important implications for social interactions. For example, if we perceive that all seniors ‘look the same’ then we are likely to treat seniors in similar ways, despite their individuality.


Creation of a Database of Faces

Would you like to contribute your face to our new 3-dimensional catalogue of faces? We are developing a state-of-the-art set of face stimuli using a very special camera that allows us to rotate images. A single picture can be shown from multiple points of view, making our tasks more similar to how we encounter faces in the real world. We took our camera to China to photograph both children and adults there. We are now collecting photographs of children, young adults, and senior citizens in the Niagara Region. Contribute your image to our ‘Let’s Face It’ gallery!



Collaborative Projects

We are conducting several projects in collaboration with other research groups. Professor Mondloch is an Associate Investigator with the Australian Research Council Center for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders. She and her students also collaborate with Professor Kang Lee (University of Toronto) and his colleagues in Jinhua, China to investigate cross-race effects in face perception.  In addition, she collaborates with several colleagues at McMaster (Daphne Maurer & Terri Lewis) and at Brock (Cheryl McCormick; Kimberly Cote; Sid Segalowitz). Collectively, these studies involve investigating face perception following early visual deprivation due to bilateral congenital cataracts, perception of emotion after sleep deprivation, and perception of aggression in adult and child faces.


Your Experience in the Lab
All child tasks are designed to be age-appropriate. For example, 4-year-olds are given a 'magic wand' in our tests of face recognition; they use that wand to put faces belonging to particular people (e.g., 'Johnny') on a bus. In another task they are asked to find pairs of identical faces and then invited to put those faces in the twin clubhouse.
Experimenters play with each child in our waiting room until the child is ready to take part in the study. Parents are welcome to remain with their child throughout their visit to the lab.
All trips to the lab end with a trip to the treasure box!

We are committed to making your visit fun and informative. We will provide free parking (and detailed directions/assistance); we will explain all of the tasks prior to beginning any test; we will take as much time as needed to explain each study and its practical implications prior to your departure.



How can you become involved?

You can phone the Face Perception Lab at Brock University; please feel free to ask any questions that you might have.

Parents: If you and your child(ren) would like to participate in our studies, we will create a file that includes each child's name, date of birth, gender and phone number. When your child is the 'right' age for a study, we will contact you and invite you to participate. Allowing us to put your child's name on file does not obligate you to participate.

Young and Older Adults: We will discuss ongoing studies with you and add your name to our database. At your convenience, we will schedule an appointment for you so that you can participate in our exciting studies.

All participants are encouraged (but not required) to add their face to our ‘Let’s Face It’ gallery of images – images that will enhance our ability to understand how people perceive one another across race, age, emotions, and point of view!

You can also help us by telling your friends about this new research lab at Brock University!













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