Home > Uncategorized > Keep Calm and Encode this Face… Then Panic and Freak Out while Retrieving It!

Keep Calm and Encode this Face… Then Panic and Freak Out while Retrieving It!


Imagine that you are sitting in a coffee shop, peacefully eating your cannoli and sipping your latte. As you look out the window, you notice someone approach
a parked car, smash the window, and steal something out of the front seat of the car. Your calm afternoon quickly becomes anxiety-ridden: your leg bounces, your voice shakes, your heart pounds, your stomach churns, and your mind races. You catch a glimpse of the criminal’s face as they are running off, and you promptly call 911. But did you know that the anxiety that you experienced when witnessing the crime could impact your ability to remember the criminal’s face later? We tend to recognize faces pretty easily, especially when someone is familiar to us, so you’re probably thinking that you would also be able to recognize the criminal’s face without a problem. After all, you did just watch them commit a crime right in front of your eyes. PAFF_090513_anxietyperception_newsfeature Your anxiety about the situation may have impaired your ability to recognize that person’s face, though, and a recent study conducted by Curtis, Russ, and Ackland (2015) sought to determine why and how this happens. Their research wanted to see how a spike in anxiety impacts someone’s ability to remember a face. More specifically, they wanted to know when the time of onset of anxiety is most impactful (before or after seeing a face) and whether or not anxiety increases stereotypes, or assumptions about the thoughts, actions, and behaviors another group of people, when someone is recognizing a face that is a different ethnicity than their own.

In order to recognize a face, or any stimulus, someone must first encode that stimulus into their memory. Imagine that you are studying for a test. Encoding is the process of inputting the information that will be on the test into your memory so that you can recall it later; in other words, the information on the test, or the stimulus, will be transcribed into a meaningful part of your memory system and then you will hopefully remember it well later! How well do you recall information? That varies widely depending on whether encoding was intentional (on purpose, such as studying for the test), or incidental (unexpected, such as witnessing a crime). Encoding also varies when other environmental factors are demanding attention; it works best when someone’s undivided attention is on the stimulus that they want to retrieve later. So, rather than looking at your cell phone and studying at the same time, you are best at encoding when you are focusing just on studying. (You can read a blog post about the impacts of cell phone use on your ability to remember and recall information here!)

Retrieval involves searching and finding a stored event in memory. It is impacted by how much someone rehearses the information they are trying to retrieve, as more rehearsal generally leads to better recall. So, the longer you study the information you need to know for that test, the better you will be at recalling it when test day rolls around. Recall is also negatively impacted by interference, or other information that comes into memory, as it gets in the way of the information that is being retrieved and therefore makes the retrieval process harder. So, if you were studying for a test and then  you attend several lectures before you took the test, some of the information you learned in the lectures could get in the way of your ability to remember the information for the test. Curtis et al. (2015) wanted to see if anxiety brought on before encoding impacted face recognition, or if it was more impactful when it occurred after encoding, but before retrieval.

Face recognition is specialized because it is a holistic process that involves seeing a face as a whole rather than the sum of its parts.To recognize a face, we rely on configuration and how parts fit together, rather than what those individual parts are. It’s kind of like a puzzle. Rather than looking at all of the individual pieces, we look at how they all fit together to make the bigger picture. If we just focused on one piece of the puzzle, it would make no sense. And, just as you may be biased about what kind of puzzles you like to do, (scenes? animals? art?), face recognition is subjected to biases, such as the own-ethnicity bias. The own-ethnicity bias, researched by many such as Gross (2009), suggests that people are better at recognizing faces that are of their own ethnic group. At least in part, this is thought to be because people are more familiar with their own ethnic group and have more interaction with people of their own race, just as you have probably had more interaction and are more familiar with with  your favorite type of puzzle. Click here to read the Gross (2009) article.

Keeping encoding, retrieval, and the own-ethnicity bias in mind, Curtis et al. (2015) sought to determine how anxiety impacts encoding and whether or not it impacts the own-ethnicity bias. Anxiety is characterized by increased physiological arousal and worry over future threats. They hypothesized that anxiety prior to encoding would cause inaccuracies in retrieval, but they were not sure if anxiety induced after encoding, but before retrieval, would have the same effect. They also thought that anxiety would increase the own-ethnicity bias, based on prior evidence that anxiety increases categorization (Mikulincer et al. 1990), meaning that people who are anxious are more likely to include something in a certain category to make it easier to process. In the context of this study, an increase in categorization would lead to stereotyping in the own-ethnicity biasTo test their hypotheses, they performed two experiments in which they manipulated when the onset of anxiety occurred.

In both experiments, participants, all of whom were Caucasian, were either placed in a control or anxiety condition. The anxiety condition’s aim was to induce state anxiety, which is considered to be a current anxious affect, or  “in the moment” anxiety. Meanwhile, they wanted to make sure that trait anxiety, which is dispositional tendency or someone’s typical, day-to-day anxiety level, was constant between all of their participants. To do this, the researchers performed a State Trait Anxiety Inventory before the encoding phase and after the retrieval phase (beginning and end of experiment) to ensure that anxiety induction was successful, and also to ensure that participants did not have different levels of trait anxiety.

Participants had to encode thirty faces. Fifteen of the faces were African American males (“other-ethnicity”), while the other fifteen were Caucasian males (“own-ethnicity”).  They were presented in random order on a computer screen and cropped to remove distinguishable features, like so:


An example of what participants were doing during the task. This is an example of an “other-ethnicity” face, as the participant is Caucasian and the face is African American.

After a five minute delay, participants entered the retrieval phase, where they were presented with sixty images, thirty of which had been presented during the encoding phase and thirty of which were “foils”, or images that had not been shown previously. Images that had been presented in the encoding phase were mirrored so that they were slightly different, but still the same face, like this:


An example of a mirrored face.

Each experiment induced anxiety at different time points and in different ways. In experiment one, state anxiety was induced prior to encoding by telling participants that they were going to have to give a speech on the “part of their body they were least happy with” that would be recorded and evaluated by their peers, while the control group was told that they would anonymously evaluate speeches, but not have to give one themselves. In experiment two, state anxiety was induced after encoding, but before retrieval. Participants were given a series of anagrams after they had been presented with the first thirty faces. The anagrams involved unscrambling words with a time constraint; half of the anagrams could not be solved, but the participants did not know that. The anxiety group was told that they would be required to complete additional anagrams if they did not perform well, and that footage would be shown to peers as an example of poor anagram-solving performance. The control group, however, was told not to worry if their performance was poor.

What the researchers found was rather surprising. In both experiments, the own-ethnicity bias was observed. Participants were more likely to say that they had seen other-ethnicity faces when they were presented in the retrieval phase, even if they had not been presented during encoding. This is called a “false alarm”. Additionally, they had higher “hit rates” for Caucasian faces, meaning that they were more accurate at recalling the faces of their own ethnicity. Interestingly, however, they found that anxiety impaired recognition, or led to higher false alarms, of all faces regardless of ethnicity, but only when anxiety was induced prior to encoding. Therefore, anxiety did not increase stereotypes or heighten the effect of the own-ethnicity bias, but it did make face recognition harder when induced prior to encoding. In other words, they found that anxiety made for poorer encoding which made for poorer retrieval, no matter the ethnicity of the face they were trying to retrieve!

Anxiety was defined earlier as worry tumblr_lntq558sN41qjbquzo1_500over future threats. In experiment 1, the participants were distracted by thoughts of giving a speech because they feared the threat of later embarrassment. Their anxiety made it harder for them to encode the faces they were viewing, just as a distraction when studying for a test makes it harder to encode the material you are learning. As a result of the poor encoding, it was harder to recognize faces later. In experiment 2, there was nothing causing them to be anxious while they were encoding the faces, so participants were successfully able to put depictions of the faces into their memory, just as you are better able to put information into your memory for a test if you are not distracted when studying. Then, even though participants were anxious when they were trying to recognize the faces, they were equally as good at it as participants who were not anxious.

Keep these findings in mind for anxiety-provoking situations that may require face recognition later. The next time you are eating a cannoli and drinking a latte and you see someone breaking into a car, take a few deep breaths and focus on the face. Try your best not to get anxious as you are observing. When you are done encoding, it is perfectly fine to panic! If you do this, you will be just as good as non-anxious people who are trying to recognize faces*!

To learn more about how face recognition can be biased, as it is with the own-ethnicity bias, read my peer’s post called “Who’s That Chick? How You Identify and Recognize the Hotties Around You”, which describes a study that found that people are better at recognizing others’ faces if they are familiar with their sexual orientation, here.

To read the original article, click here.

*Research suggests that eyewitness testimony is not very good, especially if someone is of a different ethnicity, but that is a blog post for another day. See here if you would like to read more about the own-ethnicity bias and face recognition.


Curtis, G. J., Russ, A., & Ackland, C. (2015). More inaccurate but not more biased: Anxiety during encoding impairs face recognition accuracy but does not moderate the own‐ethnicity bias. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(4), 621-627.

Gross, T. F. (2009). Own-ethnicity bias in the recognition of Black, East Asian, Hispanic, and White faces. Basic And Applied Social Psychology, 31(2), 128-135.

Malpass, R. S., & Kravitz, J. (1969). Recognition for faces of own and other race. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 330–334.

Mikulincer, M., Kedem, P., & Paz, D. (1990). Anxiety and categorization—1. The structure and boundaries of mental categories. Personality and Individual Differences, 11, 805–814.

Images (in order of appearance):

My Anxieties Have Anxieties Retrieved November 22, 2015.

Question Mark Faces Retrieved November 22, 2015.

Face Recognition Retrieved November 22, 2015.

Mirrored Face Retrieved November 22, 2015.

Anxiety Girl!  Retrieved November 23, 2015.



  1. December 8th, 2015 at 15:36 | #1

    There are so many factors that can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, and this post adds anxiety to the list. Anxiety can affect eyewitness testimony because at the time of the crime, it can impair the witness’s encoding of the perpetrator’s face, which can then affect his/her later recognition of that face. However, according to this post, experiencing anxiety after witnessing the crime should not have an effect on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Many other blog posts involve eyewitness testimony but provide other factors that affect it. For example, one post titled “Can sleepiness affect your eyewitness testimony?” explains that a lower quality of previous night’s sleep and a higher current sleepiness can make a witness’s recollection of the peripheral details of a crime less accurate. In a crime scene, peripheral details are those that are in the background of the scene, rather than in the center or foreground.

    Biases can also affect face recognition. Like the researchers in this study, I would have guessed that anxiety would increase the own-ethnicity bias. However, although the own-ethnicity bias was observed in this study, anxiety didn’t seem to affect it. This finding makes me wonder if anxiety would have an effect on other biases in face recognition, such as the own-age bias. The own-age bias is the idea that people are better at recognizing faces when the faces are of people who are similar in age to them. From this finding, I would expect to find the same pattern that was found with the own-ethnicity bias, such that anxiety does not affect the own-age bias. Overall, this study provides more evidence of ways in which eyewitness testimony is inaccurate.

  2. March 27th, 2017 at 17:01 | #2

    This is a really interesting post, especially because it can be extended to everyday situations where a persons encoding and retrieval are potentially being affected by their level of anxiety. Taking a step further it would be interesting looking at the affects on performance when completing tasks such as exams, driving or any other personally anxiety provoking activities that there has been limited exposure to, if any, in the past.

    It would also be interesting to look at this from the perspective of attention considering the close relationship between memory and attention. With the assumption of there being a loud noise when the car window was smashed and potentially a car alarm it seems like this would be exogenous orienting, where your attention is captured and spontaneously redirected. Considering attention is a limited resource and it already requires a certain amount of those resources to encode a new face into memory with the variety of additional stimulus happening at the same time this becomes a difficult task and so one is more likely to make mistakes encoding it and therefore when retrieving it.

    This article clearly demonstrates some of the many factors that impact the “simple” task of recalling a new face.

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