Overcoming Fear

You may be wired to worry, but courage can be learned.

Stress and your social memory

Ace the name game by controlling your cortisol

Remembering people's names is one of the best ways to make a positive impression in a social situation. You'd think we'd all have perfected this vital skill. Yet, name-face memory problems are notoriously commonplace. If you've ever met someone only to forget that person's name within 5 seconds, you're not alone. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to ace the name game.

In the 14th USA Memory Championship held in March 2011, champion Nelson Dellis demonstrated a series of amazing feats. Not only did he win the title but he also trounced a number of previous records, including remembering an amazing 248 digits in Speed Numbers an entire deck of 52 cards in a bit over a minute. His poetry score of 234 points set a new U.S. record.  Nelson gives a detailed blow-by-blow account of the contest in his blog. But his best advice has to do with strategies for name memory success shown in his appearance on the Today Show. He claims that anyone can perform great memory feats by understanding how the brain works.  Based on research on stress and memory for social information, it seems that you also have to understand the workings of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Nelson's technique, like that of other memory experts, seems to rely primarily on the generally helpful strategy known as "Levels of Processing," a concept introduced by University of Toronto psychologist Fergus Craik. To remember new information, you have to process it at a "deep" level; in other words, think about its meaning. Remembering the words "apple" and "soup" in a list by recalling that each has 2 vowels will not help you recall those words for very long. Instead, imagine yourself eating apple soup (sound tasty?) or put the two words in a sentence ("For lunch, I ate soup and apples").

To be a true memory whiz, you have to go beyond the tricks developed for ordinary mortals. The key to remembering people's names, the experts point out, is to focus on some feature of their faces and make up a story or an image to go along with that face. It doesn't help to remember a person by what he or she is wearing unless you're only going to meet that person on that one occasion. Parenthetically, I had a student who always wore something from "Old Navy" to just about every class, and it turned out to be a good clue for remembering his name. In general, however, you're better off focusing on easily visible and unchanging features of a person's face (nose, eyes, chin, and so on), and even telling a story to yourself that involves those features. It may seem like a lot of mental effort, but in the end it pays off and saves you potential embarrassment later.

There's no doubt that meeting people in new social situations can be stressful. Kate Middleton probably has endured considerable anxiety trying to learn the names and faces of the new royal relatives whose social world she will now inhabit. Most of us don't have quite the same kind of stress on a regular basis, but there are important times in our lives when social memory can make us or break us. Consider what happens in a job or school admissions interview. Ten people in an office or classroom shake your hand and introduce themselves to you and you realize that after the fourth person you're not even processing anyone's name at all anymore. If you were already stressed about the situation because it is a high stakes interview, your anxiety soar further as you realize you'll fail to impress on this crucial social barometer.

Research on stress and memory sheds light on what our hormones do to us to create such a state of mental disarray.  German psychologists Christian Merz and colleagues presented participants with a memorization task of recalling the biographical details of two fictitious people. Then, participants were put in a socially stressful situation, analogous to giving a presentation as part of a job interview.  The stressful situation caused the cortisol levels of participants to rise but not to the same degree for each study participant. As it turned out, only the people who showed the cortisol spike performed more poorly when their memories were tested following the stress induction. Moral of the story- if you want to do well in a job interview, you need to be the person who controls your cortisol response, not the person whose cortisol flies off the charts.

Cortisol isn't always your memory's enemy. It can be helpful to be stressed when the stress will have a productive purpose- namely to prepare you for fighting off danger. Norepinephrine, our chief "fight or flight" hormone, also serves useful goals when an emergency strikes. However, unless you're warding off a giant grizzly bear as part of your job interview, you'll be better able to remember the names and faces of the new people you meet if you can keep your cortisol within normal bounds.

All very well and good, you say, but how to keep your cortisol in check? People like memory champ Dellis perhaps are the non-reactive types, or else the sort of people who thrive on making themselves as stressed as possible. If you're one of the reactive types, though, there are ways you can use the champ's memory tricks to help control your cortisol while also keeping you functioning on all mental cylinders.

Instead of worrying about how poorly you'll do on a social memory task, put levels-of-processing theory to work for you. The more you concentrate on the people you meet while forming a zany association to something about their face, the less you think about your own social anxiety. Concentrating on the task at hand, instead of your feelings of inadequacy, will make you actually perform more effectively.  Once you've succeeded on a small scale (such as meeting 5 new people at once and remembering their names), you'll feel more confident at tackling a larger group of new names and faces. Lower anxiety will lead to lower cortisol, and you'll soon "forget" that you ever had a memory problem in the first place.

Here's a summary of how you can maximize your own social memory by managing stress:

  1. Practice "deep"processing. When you're trying to remember someone's name, work that name into a sentence along with a word or two that describes that person. "Plain Jane" may be a cruel epithet, but it may be an association that helps you recall Jane's by remembering her lackluster appearance.
  2. Think while you speak. The act of talking to someone may be enough to distract you from your mission of trying to form a mental association. Make sure you stop and process the person's name before you jump into conversation.
  3. Repeat the person's name after you're introduced.  You're more likely to remember something you say, so if you say the person's name, it will stick with you longer.
  4. Correct your mistakes early. If you learn someone's name erroneously, you may never learn the person's actual name. Make sure you expunge that wrong association before it sticks with you.
  5. Don't get rattled if you make a mistake. Once you start to lose confidence in your name memory, your stress (and cortisol) levels will rise.  Other people will certainly be understanding because they've undoubtedly made the same mistake many times. Laugh, apologize, and move on.

Even if you don't have plans to become a memory champ, learning to learn people's names is a skill that's well worth acquiring, and within anyone's reach.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Merz, C. J., Wolf, O. T., & Hennig, J. (2010). Stress impairs retrieval of socially relevant information.Behavioral Neuroscience, 124, 288-293. doi:10.1037/a0018942


Overcoming Fear