Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Large Mocha without a Name

Large Mocha without a Name: Features are Easier than Names

The baristas in my favorite coffee shop knew my drink long before they knew my name. After only a few visits, they knew that I would order a large mocha. Learning my name, however, took several more months. Remembering something about a person, such as a preferred coffee drink or an occupation, is a lot easier than remembering a name. Names are simply hard to remember - although you may have noticed that already. In this post I will describe the obvious, and paradoxical, aspects of why it is hard to remember names. In a subsequent post, I will give advice on how to succeed at remembering names anyway.

Sometimes the job of a researcher is demonstrating the obvious (in part because we can't always be sure which obvious truths are actually true). Not surprisingly, researchers have regularly documented that names are hard to remember. Show research participants pictures of people with a name and an occupation provided for each, and you will find poor memory for names but better memory for occupations. A tidy demonstration of the obvious.

There is, however, a not so obvious aspect of this as well. Remembering that a man's name is Baker is harder than remembering that he is a baker. Gillian Cohen called this the Baker-baker paradox. The exact same word, baker, is hard to remember as a name, but easy to remember as a profession.

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I regularly experience the power of the Baker-baker paradox. When I see people I've met, I can often remember a variety of features associated with them. I can recall what they do, where I met them, and maybe even some things we've talked about. But sometimes I can't remember their names. The converse, however, rarely seems to happen. When I see someone I've met, it is rare to recollect the person's name and not any features associated with the individual.

Cognitive psychologists suspect many factors contribute to the Baker-baker paradox. Thinking about a baker brings many things to mind. I think about things that are baked - such as bread or the nice scones I occasionally buy at my favorite coffee shop. In addition, I bring to mind images associated with bakers, like big ovens and those cool hats they get to wear. Importantly, I think of the person as associated with these concepts and images. The idea of a baker comes with a lot of inherent features that are intimately associated with it. In addition, the features are often the reason we've met. My baristas need to know that I will order a mocha because that feature is important to their business. Thinking of related knowledge, forming mental images, and focusing on importance are all tried and true methods of improving memory. Thus remembering that the person in a picture is a baker (or that I order a large mocha) is comparatively easy.

Names are completely different. There are no actions, objects, or images inherent to a name. Any name could be applied to a person - the name is an arbitrary concept. There is no wealth of related knowledge or easily generated mental image to aid memory. Disconnected bits of information are always hard to learn and remember.

William Shakespeare, that early student of psychology, clearly understood the distinction. When Romeo says to Juliet, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet," Shakespeare gave direct expression to the Baker-baker paradox. The name of the flower or the girl is an arbitrary social convention. The qualities of the flower or the girl are inherent features. The rose, no matter the verbal label, is a beautiful flower with a heady aroma. Romeo loved Juliet for her features and not her last name.

The baristas at Caffé Zingarro know my name now. If I quit my regular appearances at the shop, however, my name will be what they lose first. If I walked back in after a 3 month absence, I would undoubtedly return to being large mocha who works in a corner while waiting for his kid. What's his name?

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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