Expertise with unfamiliar objects is flexible to changes in task but not changes in class
AuthorSearston, RA; Tangen, JM
Source TitlePLoS One
PublisherPUBLIC LIBRARY SCIENCE
University of Melbourne Author/sSearston, Rachel
AffiliationMelbourne Graduate School of Education
Document TypeJournal Article
CitationsSearston, R. A. & Tangen, J. M. (2017). Expertise with unfamiliar objects is flexible to changes in task but not changes in class. PLOS ONE, 12 (6), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178403.
Access StatusOpen Access
Perceptual expertise is notoriously specific and bound by familiarity; generalizing to novel or unfamiliar images, objects, identities, and categories often comes at some cost to performance. In forensic and security settings, however, examiners are faced with the task of discriminating unfamiliar images of unfamiliar objects within their general domain of expertise (e.g., fingerprints, faces, or firearms). The job of a fingerprint expert, for instance, is to decide whether two unfamiliar fingerprint images were left by the same unfamiliar finger (e.g., Smith's left thumb), or two different unfamiliar fingers (e.g., Smith and Jones's left thumb). Little is known about the limits of this kind of perceptual expertise. Here, we examine fingerprint experts' and novices' ability to distinguish fingerprints compared to inverted faces in two different tasks. Inverted face images serve as an ideal comparison because they vary naturally between and within identities, as do fingerprints, and people tend to be less accurate or more novice-like at distinguishing faces when they are presented in an inverted or unfamiliar orientation. In Experiment 1, fingerprint experts outperformed novices in locating categorical fingerprint outliers (i.e., a loop pattern in an array of whorls), but not inverted face outliers (i.e., an inverted male face in an array of inverted female faces). In Experiment 2, fingerprint experts were more accurate than novices at discriminating matching and mismatching fingerprints that were presented very briefly, but not so for inverted faces. Our data show that perceptual expertise with fingerprints can be flexible to changing task demands, but there can also be abrupt limits: fingerprint expertise did not generalize to an unfamiliar class of stimuli. We interpret these findings as evidence that perceptual expertise with unfamiliar objects is highly constrained by one's experience.
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