Humans are actually better at remembering names than faces

Quick, someone, remind me of his name.
Quick, someone, remind me of his name.
Image: Reuters/Javier Barbancho
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Most of us have experienced the awkwardness of meeting a familiar person and forgetting their name. The experience leads many to lament that they’re “bad with names,” and can cause acute social embarrassment. But a new study suggests that it’s not true: What we’re actually experiencing is the effect of two different kinds of memory, and an interaction between them.

Moreover, the research from York University in the UK discovered that subjects were significantly better at remembering the names of strangers than their faces.

Remembering a face, the researchers noted, is a matter of recognition. This is a largely unconscious function of the brain, an association of experience with other things that have happened in our lives (like seeing someone every day at the school gates.) But remembering a name requires recall, a different system entirely. When recalling something, the brain “replays” a pattern of neural activity that was first laid down when the mind was given the original stimulus. This process is one reason why it’s sometimes possible to remember something if you think hard enough about it.

The findings were recently published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

When we experience forgetting someone’s name, we have by definition already recognized their face, the researchers pointed out; we’re therefore not comparing like with like when we say we can remember faces, but not names.

To test which was more memorable in a fairer environment, the researchers showed participants images of strangers, together with their names. Immediately after the learning phase, they tested recall of the faces and names separately, presenting the subjects with a database of faces they’d seen before, slightly different pictures of the same people, and people they’d never seen. They also tested with names in the same or different fonts.

The results were clear: When it came to strangers, the subjects were much better at recalling the names than the faces. Participants recognized an average of 73% of faces when shown the same photo, but only 64% when the photo changed. They recognized 85% of names, and that dipped only very slightly when a different font was used.

One hypothesis they give for the difference is that when seeing a stranger’s photograph we have only one metric to aid our memory: what they look like. When seeing a word, we have both the look of the letters and the imagined sound, which could give our minds more to cling on to (like seeing a person and also hearing their voice.)

Of course, this is just one study, and has its limitations: The experiments were only performed on small groups of students, and they only tested immediate recollection. The researchers didn’t go into why so many people have the experience of finding it hard to recall names, or why names are harder than other types of information. (They cited other tests that have shown that it’s harder to recall names than other types of characteristics: “Baker,” for example, is harder to remember as a surname than as a profession.) But it does give some insight into how our brains operate.

“Our life experiences with names and faces have misled us about how our minds work,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychology professor at York and one of the study authors, in a press release. “But if we eliminate the double standards we are placing on memory, we start to see a different picture.”