Why Superman’s glasses disguise actually works

Science has an answer to an impossible question.

Henry Cavill as Clark Kent and Superman
Spot the difference? Henry Cavill as Clark Kent and Superman. Image Warner Bros

Since its very beginning the Superman story has been riddled with one massive plot hole: how does Clark Kent keep his Man of Steel identity secret with only a pair of glasses?

You might not believe it’s credible, but a new study from the University of York has claimed that Kal-El’s simple spectacles disguise is not only plausible, it actually has a high chance of working.

The paper from Robin Kramer and Kay L Ritchie, titled Disguising Superman: How Glasses Affect Unfamiliar Face Matching, detailed side-by-side photograph experiments showing people with and without glasses.

Researchers showed 59 participants side-by-side images and asked them to determine whether each depicted the same person.

The photographs were in three categories: people wearing glasses, people not wearing glasses or an image of someone wearing glasses paired with one that wasn’t.

The first two categories saw an 80% success rate, but in the third that dropped to 74%.

Christopher Reeve in Superman
Is it a bird...? Christopher Reeve in Superman. Image Picture Warner Bros

That sounds minimal but broadened out to a large number, Ritchie explains, will have significance.

“This robust ability to recognise familiar faces often leads us to incorrectly think we are good at recognising all faces.”

“If you consider the number of people who go through passport control at Atlanta International airport every year – over 100 million last year – a 6% drop in accuracy equates to 6 million misidentifications,” Ritchie told CNN. “We hope this work can be used to inform future policies on face identification, particularly given the discrepancy between different forms of photo ID when it comes to wearing glasses.”

She continued: “This robust ability to recognise familiar faces often leads us to incorrectly think we are good at recognising all faces. Consider the passport controller whose job it is to look at a person’s face and decide whether or not they are the person shown in the passport image.

“This is a difficult task because they are unfamiliar with the person, and the passport photo could be up to 10 years old.”

As for the Man of Steel question? The researchers reckon there’s a good chance Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent can hide in plain sight.

“While we may still find it hard to believe that the inhabitants of Metropolis are unable to match Clark Kent with the numerous appearances of Superman in newspapers and on television, we can at least understand why Kent has chosen glasses as his aid to anonymity,” the study said.

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Loaded digital media manager Simon Reynolds has written about film and entertainment for various leading websites since 2008. Follow Simon at @simonreyn