Can’t remember names? The trick is putting the face to a name
New research's surprising conclusion is that human brains remember names better than faces
Don’t beat yourself up the next time you struggle to remember whether your long-lost pal’s name is Julia, Jennifer or Justine at your next Christmas do.
Science says go easy on yourself, because it’s simply a case of your mind working differently from how you perceive.
As festive party season rolls around, there will be plenty of chances to relive those awkward moments of not being able to remember an acquaintance’s name.
New research from the University of York suggests we place unfair demands on our brains when we castigate ourselves for forgetting people’s names.
According to the research, in an instance where you can remember someone’s face but can’t seem to place their name, you’re relying on a brain function called recognition to remember the face and one called recall for their name.
“It is already well-established that human beings are much better at recognition than recall. We only become aware that we have forgotten a name when we have already recognised the face,” the researchers found.
For the study, the researchers designed a “fair test”, pitting names against faces on a level playing field.
They set up an experiment to place equal demands on the ability of participants to remember faces and names by testing both in a game of recognition.
The results showed participants scored consistently higher at remembering names than faces – recognising as little as 64% of faces and up to 83% of names in the tests.
The university’s Dr Rob Jenkins said: “Our study suggests that, while many people may be bad at remembering names, they are likely to be even worse at remembering faces.
“This will surprise many people as it contradicts our intuitive understanding.
“Our life experiences with names and faces have misled us about how our minds work, but if we eliminate the double standards we are placing on memory, we start to see a different picture,” said Jenkins.
For the study, participants were given an allotted period of time to memorise unknown faces and names and were then tested on which ones they thought they had seen before.
The researchers repeated the test, but this time they complicated the experiment by showing participants different images of the same faces and the names in different typefaces.
This was to make the test as realistic as possible, as real faces appear slightly differently, due to factors such as lighting and hairstyle, each time you see them.
On average, participants recognised 73% of faces when shown the same photo and 64% when shown a different photo. On the other hand, they recognised 85% of names presented in the same format and 83% in different fonts and sizes.
When the researchers presented faces and names of famous people, participants achieved a much more balanced score – recognising a more or less the same number of faces as they did names. Johannesburg psychologist Dr Ingrid Artus believes it’s related to a matter of familiarity.
“Every human face is unique, which means that when we encounter new people, we essentially encounter a new face to remember. “It is only through repetition that the facial picture memory becomes lodged in the long-term memory for later recall,” she said.