How many faces do people know?

R. Jenkins* (Corresponding Author), A. J. Dowsett, A. M. Burton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Over our species history, humans have typically lived in small groups of under a hundred individuals. However, our face recognition abilities appear to equip us to recognize very many individuals, perhaps thousands. Modern society provides access to huge numbers of faces, but no one has established how many faces people actually know. Here, we describe a method for estimating this number. By combining separate measures of recall and recognition, we show that people know about 5000 faces on average and that individual differences are large. Our findings offer a possible explanation for large variation in identification performance. They also provide constraints on understanding the qualitative differences between perception of familiar and unfamiliar faces-a distinction that underlies all current theories of face recognition.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20181319
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1888
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

This research was supported by the European Research Council (no. 323262).

R.J., A.M.B., Helen Long, David White, Allan McNeill, Stuart McDonald, Ailsa Strathie, Heather Cursiter, Clare Sutherland, Laura del Carpio, Antony McCarthy and Jane McLachlan contributed to the list of public figures. Laura del Carpio and Faith Hodgins collected pilot data.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Authors.

Data Availability Statement

Data accessibility. Data available from the Dryad Digital Repository: [35].

Electronic supplementary material is available online at


  • Face recognition
  • Memory
  • Mental representation
  • Social group size


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