Average faces: How does the averaging process change faces physically and perceptually?

Isabelle Bülthoff, Mintao Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Downloads (Pure)


Average faces have been used frequently in face recognition studies, either as a theoretical concept (e.g., face norm) or as a tool to manipulate facial attributes (e.g., modifying identity strength). Nonetheless, how the face averaging process— the creation of average faces using an increasing number of faces —changes the resulting averaged faces and our ability to differentiate between them remains to be elucidated. Here we addressed these questions by combining 3D-face averaging, eye-movement tracking, and the computation of image-based face similarity. Participants judged whether two average faces showed the same person while we systematically increased their average level (i.e., number of faces being averaged). Our results showed, with increasing averaging, both a nonlinear increase of the computational similarity between the resulting average faces and a nonlinear decrease of face discrimination performance. Participants' performance dropped from near-ceiling level when two different faces had been averaged together to chance level when 80 faces were mixed. We also found a nonlinear relationship between face similarity and face discrimination performance, which was fitted nicely with an exponential function. Furthermore, when the comparison task became more challenging, participants performed more fixations onto the faces. Nonetheless, the distribution of fixations across facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, and the center area of a face) remained unchanged. These results not only set new constraints on the theoretical characterization of the average face and its role in establishing face norms but also offer practical guidance for creating approximated face norms to manipulate face identity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104867
Early online date4 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Cite this