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Perception. 2008;37(5):801-6.

Famous faces as icons. The illusion of being an expert in the recognition of famous faces.

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  • 1Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


It is a common belief that we are experts in the processing of famous faces. Although our ability to quickly and accurately recognise pictures of famous faces is quite impressive, we might not really process famous faces as faces per se, but as 'icons' or famous still pictures of famous faces. This assumption was tested in two parallel experiments employing a recognition task on famous, but personally unfamiliar, and on personally familiar faces. Both tests included (a) original, 'iconic' pictures, (b) slightly modified versions of familiar pictures, and (c) rather unfamiliar pictures of familiar persons. Participants (n = 70 + 70) indeed recognised original pictures of famous and personally familiar people very accurately, while performing poorly in recognising slightly modified, as well as unfamiliar versions of famous, but not personally familiar persons. These results indicate that the successful processing of famous faces may depend on icons imbued in society but not on the face as such.

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