Women Beat Men at Facial Recognition — Except for Transformers

A boy plays with Transformer figures back in 2007. The toys you play with in childhood clearly leave a mark on your memory. SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Distinguishing faces is tricky. Yet most of us are able to tell people apart every day without much effort.

It's not only a crucial skill in some professions, such as policing, security and passport control, but it's also essential to good social interaction.

So when it comes to recognizing faces, who's better at it, women or men?

That's the question researchers at Vanderbilt University set out to answer in a new study. Earlier research found women outperformed men in most facial recognition exercises, but the Vanderbilt team suspected those tasks failed to test for the kinds of faces familiar to men.

Those studies also showed that people have biases when it comes to recognizing faces. They tend to better remember faces of people their own age and race, probably because of familiarity.

Because of those findings, the authors wondered if men would do better recognizing the toys they said they were familiar with from childhood.

So the Vanderbilt team developed a test that measured men and women's ability to recognize the faces of toys, including Barbie dolls and Transformers.

The researchers showed each of the 295 participants (161 men and 134 women) a set of six images to review. Image sets included male and female faces, Barbie doll faces, Transformer faces and, as a control category, different kinds of cars.

They were then given a second set of three images, one from the first set and two they'd never seen and were asked to identify the one they'd already reviewed.

As predicted, the women beat the men on the Barbie doll faces, and the men outperformed the women on the Transformers.

But the Transformers represented "the first category of faces where men do better than women," said study co-author Isabel Gauthier, in a press statement. The outperformance of men with the toys had nothing to do with study time.

By showing that men are better than women at recognizing at least one kind of face, this study makes it hard for women to claim a biological upper hand in recognizing faces overall.

"Clearly, the faces you experience as a child leave a trace in your adult memory," Gauthier said. "It is unlikely that this effect is limited to these particular toys."