It’s not terribly difficult to get past a bouncer with someone else’s ID card. In many cases, if you’ve got vaguely the same hair and skin color and can quickly rattle off the address listed on the card, you’re in the clear. It’s probably not because bouncers are bad at their jobs, or are deliberately lax, but rather a simple fact of human nature—we’re pretty awful at matching strangers' photos to their faces. With no reference point as to how they look on an everyday basis, as we might have with a friend, we get thrown off by weird lighting, changes in beard growth and hair color, new glasses, and more.
A new study from psychologists at Louisiana State University and Arizona State University asked nearly 250 volunteers over the course of four experiments to try to match ID photos to photos of the same person taken a few years later under different lighting conditions, with a few similar-looking foils thrown in the mix. In line with previous research showing how fallible our ability to match unfamiliar faces is, the participants, all LSU students, did horribly.
When the foils—people who looked a bit like the person in the first ID photo—showed up frequently (50% of the time), participants were able to pick them out with a fair degree of accuracy. But they still missed 20% of the time. Which means, as a bouncer, they would have let one in five fake ID-holders into the bar.
The volunteers performed even worse when the fakes showed up only once in a while (10% of the time), as one might assume they do at high-security checkpoints like the TSA or passport control. “In our research, when observers infrequently encountered fake IDs, they failed to catch approximately 45% of them, even when given multiple opportunities to correct their errors,” study author Megan Papesh, a professor of psychology at LSU, said in a statement on the research.
Now, these weren’t experienced bouncers, but they were working under optimal conditions: not under pressure in a dark bar or a crowded, noisy airport, but in a bright, quiet lab, where the researchers prodded them to take their sweet time. Hopefully the TSA gets much better training.