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Nice hat, random lady! ...I mean...mom.
September 12, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

I have a very difficult time recognizing people when they're wearing, say, sunglasses. Or a hat.

Interestingly, I'm really good at recognizing people. I generally recognize most people I've seen before, even if only in passing (may not remember their names or where I saw them, but definitely recognize them), and I do extremely well on all those before-they-were-famous celebrity and name-this-famous-person quizzes online. And I'm typically the first one to be all "that's the chick from [random tv show]" when watching something. I'm also pretty good at recognizing people from a distance (based on head/body shape, gait, and body language).

But if the person is wearing sunglasses, or regular glasses, or a hat, or a coat, or has different facial hair from the last time I saw them...all bets are off. They may as well be wearing a bag over their heads.

I used to think everyone had this problem, which is why I lift up my sunglasses or take off my hat whenever I'm talking to someone (make it easier for them to recognize me), and only recently I've realized that 1) not everyone does this and 2) it's actually weird that I do it, because seemingly very few other people have this issue.

This happens to me all the time, but specifically twice in the last two days:

-Sat several seats away from a sunglass'd person on the train who kept waving and smiling. I had no idea who she was; turns out she lives in my building, which I realized as soon as we hit a dark patch and she lifted her glasses.

-Passed a sunglass'd guy on the street who waved to me as I approached, said hi to me (and called me by name, so it's not him mistaking me for someone else). I still don't know who he was, since neither of us could stop and talk, but I have to assume I know him.


Two questions:

1) Is this a thing? Seems to not be prosopagnosia, since I'm otherwise really good at figuring out who folks are.

2) What can I do to get better at recognizing people? It still takes me a few beats to figure out who someone is, even for people I see all the time and am very familiar with. (And it's also really disorienting for me to talk to people when they're wearing sunglasses/a hat/whatever because I can't read their face and it's harder to follow what they're saying.)

Anyway, any tricks to get around this would be helpful. I hate not being able to figure out who people are.
posted by phunniemee to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's a reason why celebrities wear sunglasses or criminals change their facial hair when they're trying to disguise themselves - it's because it works. I think it's totally a thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think there is a way to get around recognizing people in a state you don't see them regularly. If you saw me even once and remembered me--but without sunglasses--you won't recognize me with sunglasses until you have seen me once or twice with my sunglasses, also.

In other words, if one's appearance is drastically different, how could you even know it's them in the first place--as it's similar to have never seen them before, so of course you can't possibly recognize them until you have had a chance to see that person in altered states, too.

At work we have a celebrity who comes in often to work for a charity. She uses her real first name but a fake last name, and she has never, ever had someone standing by her recognize her, simply because she wears sunglasses and a hat. Of course we know who she is right when she walks in--because we have seen her in her sunglasses and hat many times (and without, of course).
posted by TinWhistle at 10:47 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It takes me an extra beat as well, but I'm usually cued in well beforehand by how the person walks, or the coat they're wearing that I've seen them in before, that kind of thing.

Does this (to your knowledge) happen with people you know well, and in many different contexts? For instance, sometimes I see the barista from my local around town, and it always takes me a minute to think where I know her from, since I don't *know* her know her, IYKWIM. But I can run into one of my downstairs neighbors (who are also close friends) pretty much anywhere and easily recognize them even from a distance because of how they walk and move.
posted by rtha at 10:48 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


With the exception of a really distinctive feature*, we form our memories of people's faces based on the sum total of their features. Blocking out hair or eyes (or chin, of you live somewhere cold and people wear balaclavas) takes away a huge amount of information. Some people are better at adapting than others, but you're not remotely in the prosopagnosia realm.

* -- I have a friend whose ears are so distinctive that members of her family don't immediately recognize her if she lets her hair slip over them.
posted by Etrigan at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2012


I remember reading somewhere -- I think on a site for people with face-blindness -- about what features we use to recognise people. Eyes and hair are at the very top -- I once didn't recognise my closest friend in a restaurant because she had chopped all her hair off.
posted by jeather at 11:06 AM on September 12, 2012


This was one of the first signs my mother had that her eyesight was failing. Having said that she was amazing at remembering faces before this so it was more noticeable when she couldn't and it sounds like you've been like this for a while.
posted by wwax at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2012


I think this is a fairly normal thing.

I recently was assigned the task of meeting a well-known actor in a public place and then escorting them to a second location.

This is an actor who, not only would a great many Americans recognize them, but I'm a HUGE fan of their work. This person is one of my heroes.

And yet, when this person walked up to me in sunglasses, I did not recognize them immediately. I had to actually ask, "hey are you here for [thing]?" and hear their voice.

Does your recognition kick in when you hear their voice or see other identifying details (their dog, their bike, a shirt they wear a lot)? Or are you completely at a loss until you can see their eyes? Does it happen with close friends and family, or just acquaintances? If you're OK on these points I think you're fine.
posted by Sara C. at 11:40 AM on September 12, 2012


There's a reason why celebrities wear sunglasses or criminals change their facial hair when they're trying to disguise themselves - it's because it works. I think it's totally a thing.

Right. And I get that. But I seem to have trouble recognizing people to a much greater extent than others around me, which is why I suspect this goes deeper than just a general harder-to-recognize-in-sunglasses thing.


Does your recognition kick in when you hear their voice or see other identifying details (their dog, their bike, a shirt they wear a lot)? Or are you completely at a loss until you can see their eyes? Does it happen with close friends and family, or just acquaintances? If you're OK on these points I think you're fine.

It usually takes me a really long time to figure out acquaintances. This happens with friends and family, too--always takes a few moments to recognize them (to a lesser extent with family, but still)--but I'll eventually get it.

It's generally easy to cover for, since most of the time I see people it's a planned see-this-person-in-a-specific-place-at-a-specific-time, which means that as soon as the other person recognizes me, I can just immediately assume I know who it is. It's when I run into people unexpectedly that it's a really noticeable, annoying problem (and makes me feel like a douche because they know who I am immediately and I'm just all "hey...dude..."). I pretty much have to be able to see someone's eyes and mouth to keep track of what's going on. (And to that end, I'm also pretty bad at talking on the phone.)


I haven't had my eyes checked recently (it's on the finally-have-great-health-insurance shortlist), but last time I did they were fine. And this has been an issue most of life, so hopefully it's not that.
posted by phunniemee at 1:17 PM on September 12, 2012


I wonder whether this could be a weird side effect of being able to recognize so many faces.

For example, I might know only one or two people who objectively look essentially identical to a photograph presented to me of a person in sunglasses, whereas you might know thirty when viewing the same shot.

I would then 'recognize' the photo, but you wouldn't in the absence of more information.
posted by jamjam at 1:22 PM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if perhaps others around you might do a better job of faking it when they don't recognize someone? This happens to me a lot when I see people in the wrong setting -- when I see my doctor at church or people I work with at the YMCA or stuff like that. I usually act happy, wave or smile back or say hi or whatever seems appropriate, even though I have NO idea who the person is. I usually recognize them a second or two later, when I hear their voice or notice their coat or they take off their glasses or whatever.

It might not be a difference in recognition, but instead a difference in faking recognition.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:34 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I pretty much have to be able to see someone's eyes and mouth to keep track of what's going on. (And to that end, I'm also pretty bad at talking on the phone.)

Have you had your hearing checked lately? It strikes me a little odd that you have so much trouble communicating if you can't see their mouth or read the expression in their eyes.

No idea if it's specifically connected to not recognizing people from afar, though.
posted by Sara C. at 2:19 PM on September 12, 2012


This happens to me too. The son of an Oscar winning actress who looks exactly like her was in grad school with me and I haad no idea they were related until his 1st book was published.
posted by brujita at 4:35 PM on September 12, 2012


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