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Study finds Superman’s rubbish disguise could really work in real life

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Chris Sayer
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Finally, some peace can be restored in the universe. 

Well, the comic book universe, at least.

An argument that's divided superhero obsessives for almost 100 years might just have found a resolution thanks to two psychologists from the University of York.

One issue has grated on comic lovers since Superman first flew into their lives in the Thirties, and has been the source of many a shouting match - how on God's green Earth can Clark Kent keep his vigilante identity secret by using such as crappy disguise? Are we really expected to believe that, by simply donning some nerdy glasses, he can keep his Super alias a secret? C'mon. Honestly?

Proving how much of an issue this really is, DC Comics themselves once tried to explain how he pulls it off. In Superman #330, they reasoned it was all down to focusing a hypnotizing beam through special glasses with kryptonite lenses. Yeah, duh. Hypnotising beams, obvs. 

But even then the cosplay crew were having none of it, and the arguments raged on. It looked like we were destined to never find a explanation good enough for us to believe that the identity of Superman, a baby spat out of a distant planet that grew up on a farm to be a flying human that can punch through anything and pick up massive buildings with his fingertips but weeps whenever he sees green rocks, could plausibly stay under wraps.

Until now.

According to experiment wranglers Robin Kramer and Kay Richie of the University of York, people genuinely really struggle to match up images of the same face when small alterations have been made between faces in the two pics. Stuff like body language and, oh, how about wearing glasses

Kramer and Ritchie's study involved pairs of photos, much like the ones you've got on your Facebook right now, and asking subjects to decide whether the person in the photo (unfamiliar to the participants) was the same person. The photo pairs included images where both had glasses on, neither had glasses on, and just one of the images had glasses on.

When the results came in, they discovered that when both pics did or didn't feature glasses, the participants were right in 80% of instances. But that dropped by 6% when the facial accessory featured in just one of the pics. Yeah, not massive, we'll grant you that. But significant enough to write a paper about it, it seems. 

As Gizmodo points out though, that might explain how the people of Metropolis, to whom Kent is a stranger, don't recognise him - this is a study based purely on unfamiliar faces. But Lois Lane? Lois Lane, the co-worker and love interest and therefore close acquaintance of Clark Kent? Where's your explanation for that one, comic book bosses?

Even the guys behind the study couldn't explain it:

“In real terms, glasses would not prevent Lois recognizing Clark is in fact Superman as she is familiar with him,” Ritchie explained. “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.”

Ah well, back to arguing with grown men in homemade Lycra suits, it seems. 

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Chris Sayer

Chris Sayer is a freelance journalist and editor based in London. Chris has interviewed some of the biggest names in entertainment and travelled the world doing an all manner of adventures for lots of brilliant magazines. He writes for Shortlist about booze but would probably prefer we let him write about fishing instead. Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisSayer00

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