“I never forget a face,” Groucho Marx famously said. (“But in your case I’ll make an exception,” went the punchline.)
Groucho’s memory for faces may be legendary, but it’s really not that extraordinary. In fact, humans are quite good at recognizing faces they’ve seen before. And there’s an evolutionary reason for this.
Not only humans but also many other social animals recognize their group mates by their faces. We even have dedicated machinery in the brain for processing facial features. This makes face recognition quick and relatively accurate. But what’s really challenging is remembering the names that go with those faces.
In a recent article, psychologists Lise Abrams and Danielle Davis explored the complex reasons why we forget names. First, they consider four ways in which the names for people are different from other kinds of words:
In short, forgetting a person’s name is just like forgetting a word. You’re certain that you know the word or the name, or else you feel you should know it, but you just can’t get it out. However, the strategies we use for circumventing memory lapses often fail in the case of names.
A tip-of-the-tongue experience can be considered a form of production error. That is, we fail to produce the desired word or name. But memory lapses can occur on the receiving end as well. In this case, we have a comprehension error.
We’ve all had an experience like the following. Your colleague is telling you about Sandra in accounting who recently got married, and all the while you’re thinking she’s talking about Erica in payroll. You heard her say “Sandra,” but your mind pulled up an image of Erica instead. Eventually, you realize your mistake, and then you have to go back and rewrite the memories you’d just created. (Or maybe you don’t realize the mistake, and then later in the day when you congratulate Erica, she thinks you’re being sarcastic.)
Memory for names is tested in the lab by giving participants information about a famous person and then asking for their name or what they’re known for.
Or we might ask:
If you think that last answer was correct, read the question again. (Moses didn’t go on the arc, Noah did.) This kind of comprehension error is known as the Moses illusion.
The reasons why the Moses illusion occurs are not completely clear. But we can give at least a partial explanation. When we read, we don’t process every word deeply, because it would slow us down too much. Instead, we do a “good-enough pass,” and as long as the words seem appropriate, we move on, only stopping when a word is unfamiliar or unexpected.
We get the Moses illusion in this case because Moses and Noah share many attributes. They’re both persons from the Old Testament, and each was a reluctant leader. (Moses led the Israelites, while Noah led the animals.) But not just any Bible figure will elicit the illusion, and few people fall for the question: “How many animals did Adam take on the arc?”
The Moses illusion isn’t just limited to names but can occur with ordinary words as well. You might misread a recipe and add a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon. Or you might enter the northbound freeway when you meant to head south. (You swear the sign said “South.”)
We expect our memories to be reliable sources of information, readily available whenever we need to recall something. And for the most part, that’s exactly how our memory for words and names works. In ordinary conversation, we retrieve words and their meanings at a rate of two or three per second. What’s really amazing is how rarely the process breaks down. Memory lapses are normal, and everyone experiences them. So we shouldn’t feel bad when the occasional tip-of-the-tongue experience or Moses illusion strikes us.
Abrams, L. & Davis, D. K. (2017). Competitors or teammates: How proper names influence each other. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 87-93.