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Detecting a viewer's familiarity with a face: Evidence from event-related brain potentials and classifier analyses

Wiese, Holger and Anderson, Dasha and Beierholm, Ulrik and Tuettenberg, Simone C. and Young, Andrew W. and Burton, A. Mike (2022) 'Detecting a viewer's familiarity with a face: Evidence from event-related brain potentials and classifier analyses.', Psychophysiology, 59 (1). e13950.


Human observers recognise the faces of people they know efficiently and without apparent effort. Consequently, recognising a familiar face is often assumed to be an automatic process beyond voluntary control. However, there are circumstances in which a person might seek to hide their recognition of a particular face. The present study therefore used event-related potentials (ERPs) and a classifier based on logistic regression to determine if it is possible to detect whether a viewer is familiar with a particular face, regardless of whether the participant is willing to acknowledge it or not. In three experiments, participants were presented with highly variable “ambient” images of personally familiar and unfamiliar faces, while performing an incidental butterfly detection task (Experiment 1), an explicit familiarity judgment task (Experiment 2), and a concealed familiarity task in which they were asked to deny familiarity with one truly known facial identity while acknowledging familiarity with a second known identity (Experiment 3). In all three experiments, we observed substantially more negative ERP amplitudes at occipito-temporal electrodes for familiar relative to unfamiliar faces starting approximately 200 ms after stimulus onset. Both the earlier N250 familiarity effect, reflecting visual recognition of a known face, and the later Sustained Familiarity Effect (SFE), reflecting the integration of visual with additional identity-specific information, were similar across experiments and thus independent of task demands. These results were further supported by the classifier analysis. We conclude that ERP correlates of familiar face recognition are largely independent of voluntary control and discuss potential applications in forensic settings.

Item Type:Article
Full text:Publisher-imposed embargo until 29 September 2022.
(AM) Accepted Manuscript
File format - PDF
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Publisher statement:This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Wiese, Holger, Anderson, Dasha, Beierholm, Ulrik, Tuettenberg, Simone C., Young, Andrew W. & Burton, A. Mike (2022). Detecting a viewer's familiarity with a face: Evidence from event-related brain potentials and classifier analyses. Psychophysiology 59(1): e13950, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions. This article may not be enhanced, enriched or otherwise transformed into a derivative work, without express permission from Wiley or by statutory rights under applicable legislation. Copyright notices must not be removed, obscured or modified. The article must be linked to Wiley’s version of record on Wiley Online Library and any embedding, framing or otherwise making available the article or pages thereof by third parties from platforms, services and websites other than Wiley Online Library must be prohibited.
Date accepted:16 September 2021
Date deposited:23 September 2021
Date of first online publication:29 September 2021
Date first made open access:29 September 2022

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