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The impact of external facial features on the construction of facial composites

Brown, Charity; Portch, Emma; Skelton, Faye C.; Fodarella, Cristina; Kuivaniemi-Smith, Heidi; Herold, Kate; Hancock, Peter J. B.; Frowd, Charlie D.


Charity Brown

Emma Portch

Cristina Fodarella

Heidi Kuivaniemi-Smith

Kate Herold

Peter J. B. Hancock

Charlie D. Frowd


Witnesses may construct a composite face of a perpetrator using a computerised interface. Police practitioners guide witnesses through this unusual process, the goal being to produce an identifiable image. However, any changes a perpetrator makes to their external facial-features may interfere with this process. In Experiment 1, participants constructed a composite using a holistic interface one day after target encoding. Target faces were unaltered, or had altered external-features: (i) changed hair, (ii) external-features removed or (iii) naturally-concealed external-features (hair, ears, face-shape occluded by a hooded top). These manipulations produced composites with more error-prone internal-features: participants’ familiar with a target’s unaltered appearance less often provided a correct name. Experiment 2 applied external-feature alterations to composites of unaltered targets; although whole-face composites contained less error-prone internal-features, identification was impaired. Experiment 3 replicated negative effects of changing target hair on construction and tested a practical solution: selectively concealing hair and eyes improved identification.


Brown, C., Portch, E., Skelton, F. C., Fodarella, C., Kuivaniemi-Smith, H., Herold, K., …Frowd, C. D. (2019). The impact of external facial features on the construction of facial composites. Ergonomics, 62(4), 575-592.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 1, 2018
Online Publication Date Dec 7, 2018
Publication Date Feb 4, 2019
Deposit Date Dec 6, 2018
Publicly Available Date Dec 7, 2018
Journal Ergonomics
Print ISSN 0014-0139
Electronic ISSN 1366-5847
Publisher Taylor and Francis
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 62
Issue 4
Pages 575-592
Keywords facial composite; altered-features; hair; face processing; witness
Public URL


The impact of external facial features on the construction of facial composites (1 Mb)

Copyright Statement
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article to be published by Taylor & Francis in Ergonomics on [date of publication], available online:

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