London police using 200 super-recognizers: What makes them "super"?

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, PC Paul Hyland a Metropolitan Police super recognizer poses for photographs beside computer screens at the force's New Scotland Yard headquarters in London. Several years ago, for example, London police were on the lookout for a burglar wanted for nine robberies. About a month after seeing the burglarâ AP

London police officers at Scotland Yard have reportedly been getting helped by a new breed of police-officers with special skills: "super-recognizers."

The Associated Press reported Friday that since 2011, about 200 London police officers have been recruited into an elite squad of super-recognizers that search crime surveillance photos in the hopes of identifying suspects based on perps they'd seen before.

Super recognizers were responsible for nearly 30 percent of the 4,000 people who were arrested following the 2011 London riots, according to the report.

"When we have an image of an unidentified criminal, I know exactly who to ask instead of sending it out to everyone and getting a bunch of false leads," Mick Neville, Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard who created the unit, told the AP.

Just what exactly makes someone a super-recognizer?

Richard Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College in Pa., led a 2009 study that coined the phrase "super-recognizers." He theorizes people with this superior facial recognition ability are on the other end of a spectrum from people who suffer from another condition called "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia. In face-blindness, people have an inability to recognize familiar faces, even of celebrities and people they know well.

Russell told CBSNews.com he does not believe super-recognizers are doing anything dramatically different than average people when they look at someone to recognize a familiar face. He thinks they don't hone in on someone's eyes or a specific feature to recognize someone better than a typical individual would, he said.

"We don't really know whether they are doing something qualitatively different than other people. I assume they are not," said Russell. "It might be a quantitative difference -- still using the same kind of processes, but maybe they're better."

One of the goals of facial recognition research is to understand which cues are leading people to identify a face. It could be a difference in how a person processes the color contrast between the lips and skin or the distance between parts of the face that leads to this recognition, he postulated.

Face-blindness was previously associated with brain injuries up until only about 15 years ago, he explained, but over time, it became more clear that some people were born this way. He thinks the same is the case for super-recognizers. Likely, people just don't talk about it often, he said, because they may not even realize they have unique recognition ability until they are older or take a standardized test. The same is often the case for people who are color-blind, he added.

In 2012, 60 Minutesprofiled people with face blindness and also super-recognizers.

One super-recognizer, Jennifer Jarrett, wowed correspondent Leslie Stahl at the time with her ability to recognize famous faces of celebrities and politicians from childhood photos.

That test is actually quite difficult, said Russell, who helped design it (take the test yourself to the left). Jarrett was one of the super-recognizers he studied. But people like her, who perform about three standard deviations above the norm on the super-recognizer test, are quite rare. Based on his research, he estimates about one in 1,000 people have this extreme ability

He joked that at cocktail parties when he told people his research, about one in four would think they too shared that super-recognizer ability. His tests found that wasn't the case for most.

"I started studying everyone who said that, and basically, they were all better than average, but not a lot better than average," he said. "The people at Scotland Yard, having a unit of 200, they are almost certainly not as good as the (super-recognizers) we studied, but they are better than average," said Russell, who has never tested the law enforcement officers.

Josh Davis, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at University of Greenwich in England, expressed similar doubts to the AP's Maria Cheng.

"When I was told that the police have these amazing people who recognize everyone, I was a bit dubious," he said. But after testing 18 of the best super-recognizers on the squad, he found many scored significantly better than the average. He plans to study all 200 in the force.

But as Russell points out, even his top performers like Jarrett -- who told 60 Minutes that she can even recognize waiters and people she saw on Internet dating sites -- don't have infallible photographic memories.

"The people who I have tested and are very good are not perfect," he said. "The idea that they never forget a face is too strong... something more like they rarely forget a face."

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