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Clark Kent is Superman?!: The ease of identity concealment

February 27, 2015

Some people claim that it is unrealistic to believe that people will not recognize Clark Kent as Superman and vice versa. However, that is vastly overestimating the accuracy of eyewitnesses.

Superman’s disguise as Clark Kent is quite simple, consisting mainly of his eyeglasses. With them on he is Clark Kent. With them off he is Superman. Of course his clothes/costume changes, but let’s take a moment to discuss his eyeglasses. Righi, Reissig, and Tarr (2012) conducted a study examining the effects of changing hairstyle and/or the presence of eyeglasses. They found more accuracy when eyeglasses were added than when they were removed at the time of identification. In the context of Superman, this would point toward a lesser likelihood of people who know Clark Kent seeing Superman and recognizing him as his reporter self. However, if someone – say Lois Lane- is accustomed to seeing him without his glasses and they see him with glasses, they would be more likely to recognize Clark Kent as Superman.

On top of this, there are several other factors that would also decrease the likelihood of recognizing Clark Kent as Superman. Consider the heightened stress that people are generally in when in the presence of Superman. Such heightened stress would be likely in any crime scenario, yet alone some of the more intense situations that Superman finds himself. Actually, it is likely that these intense situations would lead to an even greater amount of stress. This is important to note because heightened stress decreases the accuracy of eyewitness identification (Deffenbaucher, Bornstein, Penrod, and McGorty, 2004).

Along with the stress and the other aspects of incidents that would draw attention away from Superman, the amount of time people have Superman’s face in view is important to note. It has been found that a longer exposure duration leads to greater accuracy in identification (Memon, Hope, & Bull, 2003). Considering that Superman can go faster than a speeding bullet, how likely is it that the majority of people will have a quality view of his face for an extended period of time?

The last aspect that I will discuss, though there are several more, is the infamous red underwear. Some say that it is ridiculous to wear underwear on the outside, but it may not be as ridiculous as it appears. Research has examined whether the weapon focus effect (attention is drawn to a weapon and, thus, identification accuracy is decreased) has also looked to see if this effect is actually due to the novelty of the object. Erickson, Lampinen, and Leding (2014) found that people were more likely to identify the incorrect person when there was a novel object or weapon when compared with an object that belongs to the situation. I, for one, would consider red underwear on the outside of clothes as novel. Thus, it is possible that the red underwear serves as a distractor, lessening the likelihood that someone will accurately recognize Superman as Clark Kent.

Combine all of these factors and add in the decay of memory (the longer people have to remember something, the less accurate their memory is), it becomes more understandable that the majority of people do not recognize Superman as Clark Kent.

**For more information on the fallibility of eyewitnesses and the relation of these factors to real-world contexts, you may want to check out the article by Wells, Memon, and Penrod (2006). **

Deffenbacher, K. A., Bornstein, B. H., Penrod, S. D., & McGorty, E. K. (2004). A meta-analytic review of the effects of high stress on eyewitness memory. Law and Human Behavior, 28, 687-706. doi: 10.1007/s10979-004-0565-x

Erickson, W. B., Lampinen, J. M., Leding, J. K. (2014). The weapon focus effect in target-present and target-absent line-ups: The roles of threat, novelty, and timing. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 349-359. doi:10.1002/acp.3005

Memon, A., Hope, L., & Bull, R. (2003). Exposure duration: Effects on eyewitness accuracy and confidence. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 339-354. doi: 10.1348/000712603767876262

Righi, G., Peissig, J. J., & Tarr, M. J. (2012). Recognizing disguised faces. Visual Cognition, 20, 143-169. doi: 10.1080/13506285.2012.654624

Wells, G. L., Memon, A., & Penrod, S. D. (2006). Eyewitness evidence: Improving its probative value. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7, 45-75. doi: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2006.00027.x

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