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How many times have you tried to remember the names of people you’ve only met once or twice? Having been introduced to a new group of coworkers, neighbors, or friends, do you find yourself struggling, even within a few minutes of meeting them, to recall even one name? Memory researchers have developed a number of tricks for improving your memory for faces, such as forming clever associations (e.g., Nancy has a long nose), but these can be a lot of effort for perhaps little payoff. If only you could see a person just once and remember the name that goes with that face forever, or at least as long as you need to.

You probably know people who are adept at connecting faces with names. They also seem to be the ones who can rattle off every role ever played by an actor in a movie or TV show (without cheating on imdb.com). What’s their secret? According to new research by University of California Riverside psychologists Weizhen Zie and Weiwei Zhang (2017), it’s all about being able to connect information stored somewhere in your long-term memory with the visual information you can call up into your active, or working, memory.

Even if this skill has eluded you, the findings from their research provide the basis for a pretty neat strategy.

The UC-Riverside researchers decided to use Pokémon figures as stimuli in their experiments, because these presented the possibility for testing familiarity's effect on visual memory. The participants in their studies, born in about 1994, grew up with Pokémon cards that so many of their peers collected and traded. (This study was done before the release of the Pokémon Go game.) Zie and Zhang reasoned that if participants grew up with these cute little characters, it should allow them to do better on a lab-based memory test involving the ability to remember as many of them as they could. Familiarity should, they argued, facilitate facial memory.

There are two possible reasons for the improvements that familiarity breeds when it comes to memory, according to the authors: The first is speed. If you’ve already processed an image once, you can skip many of the early steps in committing it to memory. Alternatively, familiarity can give you a perceptual boost, meaning that you don't have to exert as much effort when you're trying to remember a familiar face. You already have visual shortcuts in mind that allow you to dispense effortlessly with this step.

The key feature of the UC Riverside study was the fact that the young adults in the study would have grown up potentially having played extensively with Pokémon characters, particularly the first set, released when the participants were in kindergarten. It’s as if you asked people in their 60s now to remember the characters in the Disney cartoons that were so popular when they were children. You don’t need much time categorizing or even remembering Mickey Mouse’s face, because it’s so over-learned. "That's Mickey," you can say to yourself, without having to study his ears, nose, and whiskers specifically.

Not all of the Pokémon characters were equally familiar to the study's participants. There was a second generation of characters, were released when the participants were of high-school age. If they were avid Pokémon players, they may have collected those cards to some degree, but not with the same ardor as the original set, the researchers believed. Again, consider the difference between the Disney characters such as Mickey and Donald versus the characters who appeared on the scene much later, such as Mulan, Nemo, and Simba. You won’t have that instantaneous recognition with the latter characters as you did with the ones you grew up with.

To test their hypotheses regarding facial familiarity and memory performance, Zie and Zheng conducted two experiments in which participants were given the task of remembering as many Pokémon as possible. In the first experiment, there were time constraints placed on the participants when they viewed the Pokémon stimuli. This meant that they had to rely on their familiarity with the stimuli, because they didn’t have time to scrutinize them carefully. In the second experiment, no such time constraints were placed on the participants during the learning phase of the trial. This should have made familiarity less of a factor in performance.

As expected, the findings showed an improved effect of familiarity with the Pokémon characters on memory performance when there was limited time. Participants who played with the cards as children remembered more of them during the memory phase, and they also remembered more of the first-generation than second-generation characters. This effect disappeared when the severe time constraints went away in the second study.

Familiarity, then, allows you to skip a lot of the preliminary steps in facial processing. This is especially true for faces that present distinctive characteristics. Consider Nancy's large nose in the example I used earlier. You don’t even need to attach words to this feature, because it jumps out at you so quickly. No need to study the eyes, eyebrows, ears, or other less prominent parts of her face.

A remaining question raised by the authors is whether, by being exposed to Pokémon characters through the game, the young adults in the study might have benefited in a more general way when processing faces in real life. Supporting the idea of brain plasticity, playing games involving novel stimuli such as Pokémon could, perhaps, stimulate the part of the brain involved in face recognition.

With this study in mind, let’s turn to the memory strategy you can use for associating faces to names: If familiarity plays such a strong role in cutting down processing time, then the obvious solution is for you to get an advance peek at the people whose names you’ll need to remember before you're placed in the situation. Some teachers intuitively use this approach when they study a student roster containing facial photos prior to entering the classroom for the first time. We don’t always have that luxury, of course. But you could take advantage of the opportunities for previewing faces provided by Facebook, Instagram, and other online sources of personal photos. When you’re invited to an event, whether a baby shower or a workplace get-together, see if you can scan the guest list ahead of time and do some background research. You could also ask the host to show you their photos. Stage performers who show off their incredible memory for faces are known to engage in preliminary sleuthing themselves by peeking at the audience to get that initial processing out of the way.

Forming face-name associations ahead of time, before you’re in the pressure of the moment, can become a trick for becoming a face-name whiz. More than impressing friends, family, and coworkers with your memory agility, learning someone's name is the best way to establish the basis for a good, and perhaps fulfilling, longer-term relationship.

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 2017


Xie, W., & Zhang, W. (2017). Familiarity speeds up visual short-term memory consolidation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 43(6), 1207-1221. doi:10.1037/xhp0000355

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