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Perception. 2011;40(7):863-72.

Effect of familiarity and viewpoint on face recognition in chimpanzees.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Center for Translational Social Neuroscience, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA.


Numerous studies have shown that familiarity strongly influences how well humans recognize faces. This is particularly true when faces are encountered across a change in viewpoint. In this situation, recognition may be accomplished by matching partial or incomplete information about a face to a stored representation of the known individual, whereas such representations are not available for unknown faces. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, share many of the same behavioral specializations for face processing as humans, but the influence of familiarity and viewpoint have never been compared in the same study. Here, we examined the ability of chimpanzees to match the faces of familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics in their frontal and 3/4 views using a computerized task. Results showed that, while chimpanzees were able to accurately match both familiar and unfamiliar faces in their frontal orientations, performance was significantly impaired only when unfamiliar faces were presented across a change in viewpoint. Therefore, like in humans, face processing in chimpanzees appears to be sensitive to individual familiarity. We propose that familiarization is a robust mechanism for strengthening the representation of faces and has been conserved in primates to achieve efficient individual recognition over a range of natural viewing conditions.

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