Efficient visual information for unfamiliar face matching despite viewpoint variations: It’s not in the eyes!

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Faces are encountered in highly diverse angles in real-world settings. Despite this considerable diversity, most individuals are able to easily recognize familiar faces. The vast majority of studies in the field of face recognition have nonetheless focused almost exclusively on frontal views of faces. Indeed, a number of authors have investigated the diagnostic facial features for the recognition of frontal views of faces previously encoded in this same view. However, the nature of the information useful for identity matching when the encoded face and test face differ in viewing angle remains mostly unexplored. The present study addresses this issue using individual differences and bubbles, a method that pinpoints the facial features effectively used in a visual categorization task. Our results indicate that the use of features located in the center of the face, the lower left portion of the nose area and the center of the mouth, are significantly associated with individual efficiency to generalize a face’s identity across different viewpoints. However, as faces become more familiar, the reliance on this area decreases, while the diagnosticity of the eye region increases. This suggests that a certain distinction can be made between the visual mechanisms subtending viewpoint invariance and face recognition in the case of unfamiliar face identification. Our results further support the idea that the eye area may only come into play when the face stimulus is particularly familiar to the observer.

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