The innocent citizens of Amsterdam were just trying to enjoy their morning stroopwafels on Friday when a familiar figure, wearing a cheap mustache and wig, strode into town like an outlaw in a saloon. Who is dat boi? asked absolutely no one, but dat boi, clad in flannel and a smirk, was world-famous pop star and melodic apologist Justin Bieber, who seemed amused by his poorly considered disguise. But maybe it wasn’t as funny as he thought. Research shows he was probably more incognito than he believed.
Turns out the average person is very susceptible to being fooled by the mustache-wig combination disguise. In 2014, a team of Indian computer scientists studying face recognition reported in the journal PLOS One that, for humans, “the co-occurrence of wig and mustache (and beard) makes it challenging to match two faces.” In other words, JB’s approach to going unnoticed is unexpectedly scientific.
The researchers were comparing the ability of humans and computers to recognize faces where certain features — and combinations thereof — were obscured, using the results to program an algorithm that could verify the identity of even heavily disguised faces. Some 400 participants were asked to classify disguised pairs of faces as either the “same person” or “imposters,” and, sure enough, combination disguises where both facial hair and a wig were involved (that is, areas that covered the forehead and nose, or the forehead, nose, lips, and chin) led to a “considerably high” number of mistakes compared to other combinations.
But, counterintuitively, the researchers also found that even single-accessory disguises led to a “considerably high” number of mistakes in identification, suggesting that Justin could have snuck by with this:
As for why some of us might be so easily tricked when certain features are obscured remains to be explained, but the findings are consistent with research published in Psychological Science in 2012 asserting that humans process faces according to key components — not “holistically,” as scientists formerly believed.
This is not the first time Bieber’s mastery of the art of disguise has proven beneficial to his career. The singer, once known for his deeply sideswept bangs, reinvented himself as a Hip Adult Man by donning a cropped new blond hairdo and creepy facial hair in a PR move coinciding with the introduction of his new, tropical house-inflected sound. Could his latest stunt actually have been a teaser for yet another Bieber evolution?