When we attempt to recognize someone, our main source of information is their face. That’s why slight alterations to a person’s mug — from Justin Bieber’s weird wig and mustache disguise to Superman’s glasses — throw us off. But in a recent study from the University of Aberdeen, researchers argue that body motion is a reliable cue for recognition, even if the face is obscured.
“I’ve always questioned why Lois Lane doesn’t recognize Clark Kent or why Bruce Wayne has never been identified as Batman,” lead author Karin Pilz said in a statement. “Now we know that they should be recognized based on their body motion!”
To figure this out, Pilz and her team first had study participants become familiar with two animated karate-performing avatars. Each avatar had distinct movements and a unique face. In the next step, the subjects were shown new avatars whose movements stayed the same while their faces morphed. In the first trial, the subjects identified the avatars by their faces, which was to be expected. But in the second, they were able to keep track of the avatars based solely on their body movements.
“Our results show that we are able to use body motion when other cues are ambiguous or unavailable, so we basically assume that we can use body motion as a reliable cue to identify when other information is less available or reliable such as when a person is far away or when they’re in bad lighting conditions,” says Pilz.
So while Superman maybe could have fooled the people of Metropolis with his Clark Kent shtick, it’s debatable whether he could have tricked Lois. Christopher Reeve’s Kal-El definitely tried his best to hide behind a Clark Kent-style slouch and shuffle, but in real life, his main boo Lois would probably have known his body too well to be fooled.