The Inversion, Part-Whole, and Composite Effects Reflect Distinct Perceptual Mechanisms With Varied Relationships to Face Recognition

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Face recognition is thought to rely on specific mechanisms underlying a perceptual bias toward processing faces as undecomposable wholes. This face-specific “holistic processing” is commonly quantified using 3 measures: the inversion, part-whole, and composite effects. Consequently, many researchers assume that these 3 effects measure the same cognitive mechanism(s) and these mechanisms contribute to the wide range of individual differences seen in face recognition ability. We test these assumptions in a large sample (N = 282), with individual face recognition abilities measured by the well-validated Cambridge Face Perception Test. Our results provide little support for either assumption. The small to nonexistent correlations among inversion, part-whole, and composite effects (correlations between −.03 and .28) fail to support the first assumption. As for the second assumption, only the inversion effect moderately predicts face recognition (r = .42); face recognition was weakly correlated with the part-whole effect (r = .25) and not correlated with the composite effect (r = .04). We rule out multiple artifactual explanations for our results by using valid tasks that produce standard effects at the group level, demonstrating that our tasks exhibit psychometric properties suitable for individual differences studies, and demonstrating that other predicted correlations (e.g., between face perception measures) are robust. Our results show that inversion, part-whole, and composite effects reflect distinct perceptual mechanisms, and we argue against the use of the single, generic term holistic processing when referring to these effects. Our results also question the contribution of these mechanisms to individual differences in face recognition.

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