Everyone would like to be able to remember the names of people we meet, especially people we meet in new social situations. Some of these situations are purely for enjoyment, and others have higher stakes. You’re being interviewed for a new job, for example, and as soon as you’re introduced to your potential supervisor, the name has flown completely out of your consciousness. Unfortunately, you’ll lose the job prospect as quickly as you’ve lost that name. When it comes to meeting people at parties, or even in casual conversation when introduced by a mutual friend, you also will appear to be a social klutz when you see that person again and must flounder (or fake) knowing the new people’s names.
We know it’s bad to forget names of new people, but looking at the flip side, we also know how much it means when we are able to call people by name the next time we see them. Whether it’s five minutes or five years later, that remembered name will make you seem (and feel) like someone who really cares about others. There is hardly a more impressive feat than coming up with the name of someone you met only once or twice.
Some people seem to be born with this ability to associate a face and a name. You may watch them with awe and envy, never dreaming that you could be one of these people too. They are probably also the same people who can watch a TV show or movie and recite not only the names but the previous roles of the actors, from minor characters to leading men and women. With the tips you’ll learn shortly, you’ll be well on your way to becoming one of these face memory champs. Great name memories can be made, if not born.
Interestingly, our ability to distinguish faces is much better than our ability to name those faces. Researchers estimate that we are all “face experts” who can distinguish hundreds, if not thousands, of faces we see over a lifetime. The trick is associating those many, many faces with the names that belong to them.
Before getting to those 6 foolproof name memory tips, let’s see what we can learn from a few recent studies. First, we’ll look at the role of the face itself vs. the context in which you see a face. You may think that it’s a good idea to help your face memory by looking at a person’s hair, ears, or neck and shoulders. However, British psychologist Charlie D. Frowd and colleagues (2012) found that focusing on these external cues was a bad idea. They investigated face memory using a software program that either highlighted, altered, or removed completely the external cues such as hair and even ears. The software is used in providing composite pictures of potential suspects in an eyewitness situation. In a series of experiments, Frowd and his team showed definitively that people are most likely to remember faces when they do not look at those external cues. The best recognition occurred when people saw the faces without the distraction of the surrounding information.
In the second experiment, conducted by University of Victoria neuroscientists Iris Gordon and James Tanaka (2011), participants looked at faces and names while hooked up to a brain scan that measured the brain’s electrical response to stimuli. The question they investigated pertains to the timing of our acquisition of faces and names. To make a very complex story short, Gordon and Tanaka concluded that one of the reasons we forget a person’s name is that we see the person before we know the person’s name. Knowing the name first gives you an anchor that you can use later to associate with the person’s face. This isn’t always practical, but as I’ll point out later, it’s definitely a useful strategy in many situations.
Finally, let’s look at an experiment conducted at Tokyo Gakugei University in Koganei, Japan by Takahiro Sekiguchi (2011) which shows the tricks used by people good at face memory. Participants were hooked up to an eye movement tracker while they looked at new faces. Name memory wasn’t actually measured in this study, but the findings shed light on what people with good face memory actually do. Those participants with the best face memory, when looking at the faces they would be tested on, fixated most of their attention on the eye region. They did not look significantly at any other part of the face, including the nose, mouth, chin, hair, cheeks, ears, or even forehead. To remember a face, you need to look right at the person’s eyes.
Now let’s put these studies together with some other facts about memory for our six face memory tips.
- Look at the person’s eyes. The face itself, and specifically the eyes, contain the window not just to the soul, but to good face memory. The eyes are a feature of a person least likely to vary over time or under different circumstances. Apart from the aging process, which adds a few wrinkles here and there, people’s eyes don’t really change. By focusing on this nonvarying piece of anatomy, you’ll be less tricked by changes in hair length or color, clothing (which definitely changes), and even body shape and height (which also change).
- Use “deep” processing of information. When you’re trying to learn a word list, for instance, you should not just look at the words, or even think about how they sound. Your best memory will be for those items whose meaning you contemplate. Put those words in a sentence or form your own associations to them, no matter how oddball they may seem. In fact, the more oddball the better. When it comes to faces, this is a trick that memory experts strongly advise. Form associations between a person’s name and that person’s face (particularly the eyes). Think of what the name reminds you of (“Tina” might turn into “tea”), and paste that association onto the person’s face. This National Geographic special shows an impressive memory expert showing his tricks for learning names (20 at once!).
- Find out the names ahead of time, when possible. As the brain scan study showed, people did better at learning names when they saw the names ahead of time. This is very possible to do when you’re going on an interview (assuming you get the schedule first) or to a party where guests have RSVP’d to a public link. It’s no help if you’re meeting someone for the first time with no advance warning, unfortunately. However, since there are many more situations than you might realize that do allow advance prep, you might as well take advantage of this strategy. For example, an instructor should review the list of students on the roster prior to the first class, so at least you’ll have someplace to start. If the class is small enough. As you take attendance, write little notes to yourself next to each student’s name that will give you a unique image for each one (such as "Jim" looks like he goes to the "gym").
- Really listen when you’re introduced to someone new. So often we’re distracted when we meet a new person, we might not even catch the name at all. If you’re at a large party or other social scene, you might not even hear the name very clearly. Afterwards, it’s too embarrassing to ask it again (or so you think). If you give yourself an extra second to process that name together with the face, it will increase the odds astronomically that you’ll remember the name and face better. Also, you don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for a person’s name a second time (or even third). This even can enhance your social standing because you’ll look like a person who at least making an effort. If you're lucky, people will have name tags, so add the visual to the auditory cues, and you'll be good to go.
- Practice the face-name game at home. Practicing celeb’s names is a low-risk way to enhance your face memory skills. As you’re watching your favorite movies or TV shows at home, go ahead and consult a movie or TV data base, which will allow you to work on forming name-face associations with people whose feelings you can’t possibly hurt. You can also diagnose your weaknesses with this simple exercise. Perhaps you’re worse at remembering men’s names, or perhaps you look too much at the changing features of a person’s costumes and disguises. You can even work out a scoring system and track your progress as the weeks go by.
- Relax! As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (which reinforces some of the points made here), when you’re stressed, your body’s endocrine system unleashes cortisol through your bloodstream. Cortisol is a definite killer of all sorts of memories, including (and perhaps especially) the type of memory involved in recalling names. In that interview situation, for example, you may be so focused on how horribly your feeling that in those first few seconds you don’t engage in deep name-face processing. As the interview goes by, your stress levels can increase to dangerous levels, particularly if you start worrying about how you’re going to bid good bye to a person whose name has completely exited your brain. That person will certainly know your name, so if you’re going to make a great impression, you should return the favor. You’ll do that fantastically if you take that one teeny extra second at the beginning to work on deep processing of that person’s name.
The most important key to name memory is to believe that you can do it. If you’ve decided that you’re a hopeless case, your lack of confidence will only make things worse. Build your name memories one person at a time, and pretty soon it’s your friends who will envy your great social skills!
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. 2012
Frowd, C. D., Skelton, F., Atherton, C., Pitchford, M., Hepton, G., Holden, L., & ... Hancock, P. B. (2012). Recovering faces from memory: The distracting influence of external facial features.Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18(2), 224-238. doi:10.1037/a0027393 Gordon, I., & Tanaka, J. W. (2011). Putting a name to a face: The role of name labels in the formation of face memories. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23(11), 3280-3293. Sekiguchi, T. (2011). Individual differences in face memory and eye fixation patterns during face learning. Acta Psychologica, 137(1), 1-9. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.01.014