This Is The Best Kind of Disguise To Conceal Your Identity

This week in science: using brain imaging to predict who will respond to antidepressants, how your personality rubs off on your cat, and a disguise that is surprisingly effective.
Eilidh Noyes and Rob Jenkins, University of York

Each week, we read what's going on the world of science and bring three of the wildest findings straight to you. Scroll through for the latest:

There are two types of disguises, and one is more effective

Spy movies and The Americans got something right: disguises can be surprisingly effective at preventing others from seeing who you really are, especially when someone is concealing their identity from people who have never seen them before.


A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology looked at two different kinds of disguises: “When it comes to changing appearance, an important question is, to what end?” Says paper author Rob Jenkins, a psychologist at the University of York. “We often talk about disguise as if it’s one thing. In fact, disguise is used for at least two very different purposes, and that turns out to be important.”

An evasion disguise is trying not to look like oneself, he tells me, and it might be used for witness protection, undercover police work, or by people who are on the run. An impersonation disguise is trying to look like another specific person, which could be used for identity fraud or (in a less criminal context) on Halloween.

The new work asked just how well these disguises work, and if one is more effective than the other. The researchers asked people if they could point out photos of the same person, using images like this one, of strangers wearing evasion or impersonation disguises:


Eilidh Noyes and Rob Jenkins, University of York

Overall, the evasion disguises were better at fooling the people in the study than the impersonation disguises. They found that disguises made people about 30 percent worse at pointing out two of the same face, even when participants had been told that a person had altered the way they looked.

The results tell us a bit about our capabilities for facial recognition, and the limits of those capabilities, York tells me. Even in undisguised people, we’re not great at matching two of the same face for people we’ve never seen before. Obviously, it’s pretty easy to recognize two photos of a person we know without a disguise, but once an evasion disguise is put on? Our ability dwindles. When they gave the same face matching task to participants who were familiar with the disguised people, they did a bit better—yet still had lower accuracy when presented with the evasion disguises.


“I think it tells us that we shouldn’t be too complacent about disguises being easy to spot,” York says. “The sort of ‘cartoon’ disguise of slapping on glasses and a hat belongs in the cartoons. When people are free to put together their own disguises, they are actually quite attuned to what makes a face distinctive, and can be very inventive about how to lead people astray.”

Can we one day predict who will respond to depression treatments, by looking at their brains?

The treatments we have for depression are far from perfect—around 50 percent of people don't respond to the first two medications they take. Drugs will often need to be changed or combined, and it can take a long time for someone to start feeling better. With depression, this waiting can be dangerous.

People could lose their jobs from missing work, have disruptions in their personal lives, or die by suicide. “A procedure needs to be developed which helps to identify non-responders for a specific drug earlier,” says psychiatrist Lukas Pezawas at the Medical University of Vienna. One such procedure scientists are exploring is brain imaging.

In a new study in Translational Psychiatry, Pezawas and his colleagues looked at the brain activity with fMRI of 22 people with depression four times: once before treatment with an SSRI, and three more times over the course of eight weeks. The researchers looked for activity that could be associated with an eventual good outcome before the treatment even started, and for brain activity during the treatment that was associated with the treatment going well.


They found that higher activity in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC, before treatment began could predict who would have better outcomes—those with higher activity in this region did better than patients with lower activity. Once the treatment started, they saw that changes in activity in an area of the brain called the anterior medial prefrontal cortex (amPFC) was also associated with people who were responding well to the SSRI.

“Both regions, the DLPFC and amPFC have been implicated in depression many times before and both regions interact heavily,” Pezawas tells me. The amPFC is associated with emotions, and the DLPFC is related to emotion regulation, he explains.

It might be feasible one day to give a depressed person a single brain scan to see what’s going on with their DLPFC activity and predict how likely they are to respond to an SSRI. This could help people find the right treatments, faster. We’re not there yet, but Pezawas is hopeful of a near future where imaging could lead to the best treatment options.

“Imagine you would know this ahead of SSRI treatment, which is the first-line treatment for depression,” he says. “This would likely change the clinical decision, which drug should be used in this patient.”

How your personality affects your cat

In 2009, I had an orange cat named Beckett that I adopted from my neighbors across the hall. They didn’t want Beckett because he hid all the time, and seemed generally miserable. Over the next several years, he became much friendlier, liked to snuggle, but remained a touch neurotic and prone to fits of anxiety. Oddly enough, that’s a pretty apt description of me as well—I somehow felt he had picked up my personality just from living with me.


We know that the personalities of our (human) parents can impact us, but there’s been very little research done on how or if an owner’s personality can rub off on their pet. “This is surprising given that we may often treat our pets a little like our surrogate children or ‘fur babies,’ so it’s very possible that they too can be impacted both positively and negatively by our personalities,” says Lauren Finka, a postdoctoral research associate at Nottingham Trent University in England.

Finka wanted to look at this relationship in a more scientific manner, “to cast light on animal experiences and welfare, but also act as a conduit for wider familial and relationship-based research,” as she writes in a new paper in PLOS One. We use animal models in nearly every other facet of medicine and health, why not this one?

The study looked at 3,331 cat owners’ responses to an online survey about their own personalities, and the health, behavior, and management of their cats. The people’s answers were used to measure them according to the “Big Five Inventory” which evaluates personality traits like agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness.

The researchers found that there were indeed parallels between the parent-child relationship and the owner-pet relationship. Just like in parents and children, higher levels of cat-owner neuroticism were associated with negative well-being in cats, and high levels of traits like extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness in owners were associated with more positive cat well-being, Finka tells me.


“Owners who scored higher on the neuroticism scale were more likely to keep their cats strictly indoors, report their cats as having a ‘behavioral problem’ as well as displaying more aggressive and anxious/fearful behavioral styles, more stress-related sickness behaviors, having an ongoing medical condition and being overweight,” she says. Owners who scored higher in conscientiousness also said their cats were less anxious or fearful, aggressive, aloof, and had more “gregarious behavioral styles.”

So, should only very agreeable people own cats? (This is not the kind of cat lady I was planning on being.) Finka says that cats prefer calm, predictable routines, some solitary time undisturbed, as well as time to explore in exciting environments. Just like when it comes to taking care of humans, providing these needs as a caretaker is possible even if it conflicts with our personality types, “It may just require a bit more of a conscious effort on our part,” she says.

Your weekly science and health reads

The devastating allure of medical miracles. By David Dobbs in Wired.
The darker aspects of “miraculous” limb transplants that are rarely talked about.

Life probably exists beyond Earth. So how do we find it? By Jamie Shreeve in National Geographic.
The discovery of exoplanets reignited interest in the search for alien life—do we have the technology to finally find it?

In China, some parents seek an edge with genetic testing for tots. By Michael Standaert in MIT Technology Review.
And I thought taking the SATs was a lot of pressure.

Five things I wish I’d known before my chronic illness. By Tessa Miller in The New York Times.
“There’s no conversation about that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness won’t go away but won’t kill you, so none of us know what ‘chronic illness’ means until we’re thrown into being sick forever.”

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