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Women Aren't Better at Reading People's Faces After All

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: May 19th 2017

new article illustration

FRIDAY, May 19, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to spotting a familiar face, men are just as gifted as women, a new study suggests.

The finding contradicts the widely held belief that women are better at recognizing faces and reading facial expressions than men are, the Penn State researchers said.

"There has been common lore in the behavioral literature that women do better than men in many types of face-processing tasks, such as face recognition and detecting and categorizing facial expressions, although, when you look in the empirical literature, the findings are not so clear-cut," said researcher Suzy Scherf. She is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience.

"I went into this work fully expecting to see an effect of biological sex on the part of the observer in facial recognition -- and we did not find any. And we looked really hard," she added in a Penn State news release.

Facial recognition is crucial in social interaction and for certain types of behavior, so it makes sense that women and men are equally skilled in this area, Sherf noted.

"Within 30 milliseconds of looking at a face, you can figure out the age, the sex, whether you know the person or not, whether the person is trustworthy, whether they're competent, attractive, warm, caring -- we can make categorizations on faces that fast," she said.

"And some of that is highly coordinated with our behavioral decisions of what we are going to do following those attributions and decisions," Sherf explained. "For example: Do I want to vote for this person? Do I want to have a conversation with this person? Where do I fit in the status hierarchy? A lot of what we do is dictated by the information we get from faces."

The researchers used brain scans and behavioral tests to assess female and male volunteers' ability to recognize faces and read facial expressions.

"In order to enroll someone in our study, we went through a careful screening procedure to make sure that people did not have a history of neurological or psychiatric disorders in themselves, or in their first-degree relatives," said Scherf. "This is important because in nearly all the affective disorders -- depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar -- face processing is disrupted," she noted.

The study findings were published online recently in the journal eNeuro.

More information

Bournemouth University explains a condition called face blindness.