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‘Super-matcher’ Study Seeks Sherlock Skills

Do you have Sherlock Holmes-style powers of observation and razor-sharp attention to detail?

You could be a ‘super-matcher’; a phenomenon being studied by Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury Psychology Lecturer Dr Bethany Growns.

Super-matchers are a very small percentage of the population who are innately gifted at comparing or matching complex visual patterns; something that forensic scientists train for many years to do.

“We have found that there are rare individuals in the general population who are extremely accurate in pattern-matching – also known as visual comparison,” Dr Growns says. “One example is fingerprint-matching where people are asked to decide if two fingerprints are from the same person or different people.

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“Our research has shown that some people are highly accurate in this task across a range of different complex visual patterns. We think only about 2 to 3 per cent of the population have this type of innate skill.”

Dr Growns has created a quick online test to identify super-matchers and she is keen for as many people as possible to take the test and find out if they have super skills.

Dr Growns says little is currently known about what makes super-matchers so skilled at pattern-matching and more research is essential to help find out what makes them so unique.

“We think there are people out there that are naturally gifted with this psychological ability. We don’t really understand why yet, but it might have a specific genetic or neurological component.”

She says people vary widely in their visual comparison skill – the ability to compare or ‘match’ stimuli side-by-side – particularly forensic evidence like fingerprints, toolmarks or shoeprints. Forensic evidence can play a very influential role in court, but it has also resulted in wrongful convictions around the world where innocent people have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

Dr Growns says the results of her recent studies challenge the long-held belief that forensic scientists’ abilities are solely the result of years of experience and training. She believes it could be possible for super-matchers to work within the criminal justice system in the future to reduce some of the errors that might result in wrongful convictions.

Dr Growns is the lead author of a recent Applied Cognitive Psychology journal article describing the results of two studies where 124 participants were tested on their matching ability of fingerprints, firearms, faces, toolmarks, shoeprints and artificially generated patterns.

The results show that pattern-matching ability is a “generalisable, reliable, and stable cognitive skill”. Some people outperformed others in pattern-matching tasks regardless of experience, training or practice.

Dr Growns says research investigating individual differences in pattern-matching is only just beginning to emerge.

“We believe there are important factors to investigate in developing a more comprehensive understanding of pattern-matching as a cognitive ability.

“The results will have important implications for forensic science – particularly the importance of developing standardised tests that could be used to recruit new high-performing forensic trainees.”

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