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Superman's disguise might not be so ridiculous

Can dressing as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent really fool humans in search of Superman? A psychological phenomenon called prosopagnosia may be the answer.

We all know Clark Kent is Superman in disguise. So why can't his friends figure it out?
Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Anyone who's read Superman comics or seen the many movies might wonder how the alien-born superhero could fool so many humans -- especially a smart investigative journalist like Lois Lane -- with a simple disguise of a dull suit and Buddy Holly eyeglasses.

DC Comics has hinted -- since issue Superman #330 -- that Superman hypnotizes humans into submission with a special beam located inside his Clark Kent eyeglasses.

But the reason Superman has managed to elude his friends, colleagues and enemies as Clark Kent could have to do with a psychological phenomenon called prosopagnosia -- also known as face blindness. The cognitive disorder makes the ability to recognize familiar faces more difficult.

In a new paper titled "Disguising Superman: How Glasses Affect Unfamiliar Face Matching," published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, University of York psychologists Robin Kramer and Kay Ritchie have even gone so far as to suggest that even the smallest alterations to someone's appearance, like wearing eyeglasses, could easily confuse someone suffering from prosopagnosia.

"Analysis of response bias showed that when only one face wore glasses, people tended to respond 'different,'" the paper states. "We demonstrate that glasses affect face matching ability using unconstrained images, and this has implications for both disguise research and authenticating identity in the real world."

Clark Kent might have a hypnotizing beam in his eyeglasses, or perhaps all his buddies suffer from face blindness.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

It's interesting to see how a pair of eyeglasses can confuse a stranger into thinking you might be someone else.

"When a security guard checks a passport photo against the person standing in front of them, they do not have the luxury of familiarity with that face, as Lois does with Superman/Clark Kent," Kramer explained in an interview with University of York. "This is something we wanted to investigate further, because we know from previous studies that people are relatively poor at matching faces in various guises when the person is unfamiliar to them."

"In real terms, glasses would not prevent Lois recognizing that Clark is in fact Superman as she is familiar with him," Ritchie added. "For those who do not know him, however, this task is much more difficult, and our results show that glasses do disrupt our ability to recognize the same unfamiliar person from photo-to-photo."

The researchers are hoping to their study will not only help Superman fans find some closure to their Clark Kent disguise debates, but also serve to inform legal authorities who are deciding future security policies regarding identification, "particularly in the UK where individuals who normally wear glasses are required to remove them for their identification cards," Ritchie said.