We Are Blissfully Unaware Of The Faces We Should Recognize, But Don't

Dec 10, 2018

It’s happened to all of us. You bump into someone on the street whom you know you know, but you can’t for the life of you remember their name. Worse yet, somebody walks up to you at a party, greets you by name, asks about your kids, and all you can think is – what is their name?

Many of us say we’re terrible with names. But new research suggests that it’s faces that are actually our weak spot.

Rob Jenkins is a psychology researcher at University of York and co-author of the new study.

It seems like the actual process—recognizing a face and coming up with a name should be intimately linked— but they’re two separate brain processes.

Jenkins explained that socially, they do co-occur, but the demands placed on the memory system are two very different sub-tasks. The face is presenting a recognition task, while the name is a recall task.

If you’re one of those people who are good with faces but terrible with names, there’s a better way to think of it: Perhaps you’re good with recognition but terrible with recall.

Across three experiments Jenkins and his team showed that recognition of previously unfamiliar names exceeded recognition of previously unfamiliar faces. The advantage continued even when the same face pictures were repeated.

It’s very difficult to train people to get better at recognizing unfamiliar faces, but Jenkins left us with some general name memory tips: Connect the sight of faces with the sound of the name as often as possible. Traditional introductions where you see someone, learn their name, and shake their hands are good at reinforcing this. When you hear the sound and see the sight together, it’s more likely to stick with you. Also, repeating a name after you meet someone helps.

And lastly, try connecting a name with a visual cue of that person. “Eloborating,” Jenkins said. He used his name as an example.

“My name is Rob. Now envision my eyebrows connecting together to form a robber’s mask.” The visual cue of the robber's mask will help you recall the name Rob with the face. Give it a try at your next party. 


Web content produced by Liz Lerner.