Forensic psychology
Forensic psychology

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Forensic psychology

5.1.1 Why is it so hard to describe a face?

Figure 2

Did anyone successfully recognise the person you were describing from your post? Did you recognise anyone described in someone else's post?

If only the face is described, it is usually the case that no one is able to recognise who is being described unless that person has an unusual, or famously characteristic feature. For example, the British celebrity Bruce Forsyth is often described as having a large chin, making it possible for him to be recognised from a description that includes ‘very large chin’.

For most faces though, it is almost impossible to recognise them from a verbal (put into words) description. Can you suggest why this might be?

Generally speaking, describing a face can be difficult because:

  • Faces tend to look very similar. Saying the face has a nose, two eyes and a mouth does not distinguish it from millions of other faces.
  • It is difficult to bring to mind what an individual feature looks like. Many people find it tricky to imagine a face, and ‘zooming’ in on an individual feature is particularly difficult, if not impossible.
  • Our vocabulary for describing faces is not very good, probably because describing a face is something we do only rarely. Since most people’s features will, by definition, be ‘average’, describing someone as having an average-looking nose or mouth will not distinguish them from all the other people who have average-looking noses or mouths.

If you were feeling creative or poetic, you might have included a metaphor or simile in your description. For example, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth described her husband as:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men

May read strange matters. To beguile the time

Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t.

(from Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5)

But although such descriptions can be evocative, they tend not to increase the chances of the description being recognised.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus