A recent study by researchers in Australia points to a possible relationship between difficulty with facial recognition and social anxiety.
In the study, 138 adults were given the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT) and the social interaction anxeity scale. As part of the CFMT, participants were trained to recognize 6 different faces, and then given trials where they had to distinguish between the learned faces and other faces.
Results showed a small but significant correlation between facial recognition and levels of social anxiety. People with higher social anxiety were less able to recognize faces. This result was also not due to a difference in visual memory; it was specific to faces.
Although the study results suggest a relationship, it is not clear which comes first. Social anxiety? Inability to recognize faces? Or is it a reciprocal relationship in that each makes the other worse?
As noted elsewhere, results of this study suggest a possible link between social anxiety and autism. People with autism and asperger's disorder have trouble recognizing faces. Could it be that we are actually looking at a continuum with introversion on one end and severe autism on the other?
If I was a betting woman (which I am not; I have been known to cash out after winning pocket change on a slot machine) I would say the odds are that is the case. It will be very interesting to watch the discussion and investigation unfold. Hopefully future research will answer these questions.
In the meantime, what can we do with this information?
If social anxiety causes poor facial recognition, then not much. But if poor facial recognition leads to increased social anxiety, then maybe we can work on our ability to recognize faces. However, research is still in its infancy as to whether this is possible.
Even if you can't improve your ability to remember faces, you can at least make people feel less slighted if you fail to recognize them at an upcoming function. When first meeting people, simply mention that you have a terrible time remembering faces, so they should not take it personally if you fail to recognize them the next time you meet.
Do you have trouble remembering faces?
Photo © Microsoft