NOV 21, 2016 5:17 AM PST

Barbie Dolls, Transformers and Facial Recognition

Numerous studies on facial recognition have consistently shown that women are better at remembering facial details than men. While some studies have attributed this to race and age factors, a 2013 meta analysis of over 140 existing research projects conducted by a team of neuroscientists and psychologists at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden confirmed that regardless of age, race or other factors, women are definitely better than men at facial recognition. That analysis did show that while women overall were better at facial recognition, they scored better recognizing faces of their own gender. However, a new study puts men ahead of women, for the first time in recognizing faces. Men, it turns out, are much better than women at recognizing and identifying the different faces of the popular Transformer toys.
 
A team at Vanderbilt University wanted to challenge the conclusion that women are naturally more adept at recognizing faces. They believed that it couldn’t be some inborn neurological ability, but rather a matter of life experience. Isabel Gauthier, the David K. Wilson Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, who conducted the new study with graduate student Kaitlin Ryan stated, “One of the suggestions of this prior work is that that women are inherently better than men at recognizing faces. But we believe that experience plays a major role in facial recognition so we tried to come up with some way to test our hypothesis regarding this gender difference.”
 
They decided to start with early experiences since what and how we play as children has a definite impact on later life. They started with toys. While the toy market has come a long way in recent years, the researchers felt it was a safe bet that more women had played with Barbie dolls growing up and more men had played with Transformers, the robot-like action figures. The interviews they conducted with potential study participants confirmed this.
 
To take advantage of this difference, the researchers designed a study that compared the ability of men and women to recognize faces. Included were male and female human faces, Barbie doll faces, Transformer faces and different kinds of cars, a control group. Images of these different groups were shown to each group of men and women and testing was conducted to find out what they remembered and recognized.
 
Six images were shown to each person, and all were asked to study them and do their best to commit the images to memory. From there the researchers showed the volunteers three images, one from the first group of six and two that hadn’t been seen.  Dr. Gauthier noted that while most people believe every Barbie doll has the same face, there are different dolls in the toy line and the faces are distinctly different across the various dolls.
 
The study involved 295 people: 161 men and 134 women. Some were tested in person and others used the Amazon Mechanical Turk website which allows for a more diverse body of testers.
 
The men and women in this study performed about equally on recognizing human faces, and the men had a slightly better ability to recognize cars than the women. However, in a research first, men outperformed women in recognizing the faces of the Transformer toys. The difference was small but still statistically significant. Women had a similar advantage in recognizing Barbie doll faces. While there was a concern about accuracy in the study concerning the better ability of men at recognizing and remembering Transformers because the toys are often seen as objects rather than a toy with a face, that concern was dealt with by including cars in the testing.
 
Gauthier has done prior research that shows that after a few hours of being exposed to unfamiliar faces, the brain actually changes how the memory of these faces are processed . Gauthier concluded that, “Clearly, the faces you experience as a child leave a trace in your adult memory. It is unlikely that this effect is limited to these particular toys.” The study was published in the Journal Vision Research. The video below explains it more detail

Sources: Vanderbilt University Karolinksa Institutet via Science Daily Vision Research via Science Direct
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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