Tolerance for distorted faces: Challenges to a configural processing account of familiar face recognition

Adam Sandford, A. Mike Burton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
20 Downloads (Pure)


Face recognition is widely held to rely on ‘configural processing’, an analysis of spatial relations between facial features. We present three experiments in which viewers were shown distorted faces, and asked to resize these to their correct shape. Based on configural theories appealing to metric distances between features, we reason that this should be an easier task for familiar than unfamiliar faces (whose subtle arrangements of features are unknown). In fact, participants were inaccurate at this task, making between 8% and 13% errors across experiments. Importantly, we observed no advantage for familiar faces: in one experiment participants were more accurate with unfamiliars, and in two experiments there was no difference. These findings were not due to general task difficulty – participants were able to resize blocks of colour to target shapes (squares) more accurately. We also found an advantage of familiarity for resizing other stimuli (brand logos). If configural processing does underlie face recognition, these results place constraints on the definition of ‘configural’. Alternatively, familiar face recognition might rely on more complex criteria – based on tolerance to within-person variation rather than highly specific measurement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)262-268
Number of pages7
Issue number3
Early online date20 May 2014
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2014


  • face cognition
  • configural processing
  • holistic processing
  • aspect ratio


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