Lack of proper sleep can impact the accuracy of face identification, researchers have found, suggesting that the crucial “passport task” by officers can be affected by poor sleep.
It is often necessary to identify unfamiliar people by comparing face images: for example a CCTV image to a mugshot, or a passport photograph to a traveller. Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the University of Glasgow in the UK, found that accuracy of these decisions is impaired by poor sleep.
However, the study also found that poor sleepers were just as confident in their decisions, highlighting possible implications for security and policing. Participants were asked to decide whether two images, presented on a computer monitor at the same time, pictured the same person or two different people.
The researchers set the task to differ from the face recognition tasks most of us encounter in our daily lives in two important ways: firstly, the people pictured in the images are unfamiliar.
Secondly, the task did not involve memory, because the images appear on the screen at the same time. Researchers said that while most people would typically expect to perform well on these tasks, many are surprised at how many errors they make.
Previous studies have shown impaired memory for faces following restricted sleep. However, until now it was not known whether lack of sleep impairs performance on face identification tasks that do not rely on recognition memory.
“We found that poor sleep in the three days leading up to the test was associated with poorer performance on the face matching test. In a separate experiment, we also found that participants with insomnia were poorer on the task,” said Louise Beattie, from the the University of Glasgow.
“Sleep disruption is common in the general population, and especially so among night-shift workers,” Beattie said. “Here we show for the first time that performance in a crucial “passport task” is affected by poor sleep, and our research has important implications for those working in security or forensic settings,” she added.
“This adds to the literature showing poor sleep and shift work to be associated with a range of adverse health, cognitive and emotional effects,” she said. The researchers said that poor sleep was not only associated with poorer performance, but also with higher levels of confidence in errors.
“In modern society it is often necessary to identify unfamiliar people by comparing face images. In this study we show that the accuracy of these decisions is impaired in poor sleepers,” said David White, from UNSW.
“Worryingly, although poorer sleep was associated with reduced accuracy, poor sleepers were not less confident in their responses. This has important implications for security and policing, where shift work is common,” said White. The study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.