“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:

  • Names are arbitrary. Ordinary words consistently refer to the same kind of thing. If I tell you I have an apple in my backpack, you have a pretty good idea what that object looks like. But if I tell you I have a friend named Brad, you know absolutely nothing about him.
  • Names don’t have synonyms. We’ve all had the experience where a word seems to be dangling on the tip of our tongue—we know there’s a specific word we want to use but we just can’t retrieve it from memory. Fortunately, almost all words have synonyms, and although they may not be just the one we wanted, they'll do in a pinch. Our conversation partner is none the wiser about our memory lapse. But people’s names don’t have synonyms—there are no substitutes.
  • Names contain multiple words. In many cultures, it’s customary for a person to have both a given name and a family name, and sometimes additional names as well. If you’re trying to remember the name of the actor that starred in two different movies featuring airplanes crashing into water, just saying “Tom” isn’t going to cut it—you need his full name. (Tom Hanks, in Castaway and Sully.)
  • Names are low-frequency words. Among ordinary words, a tip-of-the-tongue experience is more common with low-frequency words like “disseminate” than with high-frequency words like “spread.” Even when the components of names are common, such as “Tom” and “Hanks” or “Brad” and “Pitt,” their combinations (“Tom Hanks” and “Brad Pitt”) still occur much less frequently. Sometimes, even the letter combinations in names are highly unusual, making them difficult to remember. For example, who played the male lead in 12 Years a Slave? (I know you can see his face, but what’s his name?)

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.

  • Q: Which British actor portrayed Harry Potter in the film series?
  • A: Daniel Radcliffe.

Or we might ask:

  • Q: How many animals did Moses take on the arc?
  • A: Two of each kind.

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.

References

Abrams, L. & Davis, D. K. (2017). Competitors or teammates: How proper names influence each other. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 87-93.

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