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It may be counterintuitive, but we’re actually better at remembering names than faces, study finds

photo of crowd of faces
Creative Commons/Flickr/Anna
“There is rarely an opportunity to recognize a name first and then fail to remember a face; instead the apparently poor memory for names is normally conditional on success in face recognition.”

Think you’re bad at remembering names? You’re probably worse at remembering faces.

At least, that’s what a new British study suggests. Researchers tested people’s memory for faces and names in what they call a “fair test” — one that directly pitted the two cognitive tasks against each other. Few other experimental studies have been structured that way.

The study found that people are significantly more likely to remember the names than the faces of newly learned people.

“This will surprise many people as it contradicts our intuitive understanding,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychologist at the University of York, in a released statement.

“Our life experiences with names and faces have misled us about how our minds work, but if we eliminate the double standards we are placing on memory, we start to see a different picture,” he added.

The study was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

A series of experiments

For the study, Jenkins and his colleagues conducted three separate experiments. In the first one, they asked 24 university students to sit at a computer screen and memorize — at their own pace — 40 unknown faces (shown in color photos) with accompanying names (shown in lower-case letters).

After completing that task, the participants were given two recognition memory tests: one for faces and one for names. They were shown the same faces and names again, although some of the photos were taken with a different camera and some of the names were shown in upper-case letters (to make the experiment as realistic as possible). Those 40 faces and names were mixed among an equal number of faces and names that the students hadn’t been previously shown.

The students recognized, on average, 73 percent of faces when shown the same photo and 64 percent when shown a different photo.

Their name recognition, however, was much better. They recognized, on average, 85 percent of the names when presented in the same lower- or upper-case format and 83 percent when shown in a different one.

In the second experiment, the test was repeated with another 24 students, although this time they were assessed separately on their ability to remember faces and names. That enabled the researchers to determine how well the participants performed the tasks when the faces and names weren’t connected to each other.

The students’ accuracy for both the face and name memory tasks was similar to those in experiment No. 1.

When celebrities are involved

For the third experiment, Jenkins and his colleagues wanted to test whether recognition of faces and names differs when the identities of the people are familiar.

“It is very well established that recognition memory for unfamiliar faces is poorer than recognition memory for familiar faces,” they explain in their paper. “Furthermore, changes in expression, lighting, or viewpoint between learning and test is much more damaging to recognition of unfamiliar than familiar faces.”

Twenty-one students were recruited for this experiment. It was conducted similar to experiment No. 1, except the 80 photos and names involved famous people.

This time around, the students’ memory of faces and names was about the same. They recognized, on average, 88 percent of the famous faces when shown the same photo and 85 percent when shown a different one.

Similarly, they recognized, on average, 89 percent of the famous people’s names when presented in the same lower- or upper-case format and 90 percent when shown in a different one.

“Our results show a clear recognition memory advantage for names over faces when these depict unfamiliar people — an effect which disappears for familiar people,” Jenkins and his co-authors conclude.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with caveats, of course. Most notably, it involved a relatively small number of participants, and all were young university students. The findings might have been different if a larger and more diverse group of participants were involved.

It would be particularly interesting to see if the results would be similar among older adults, as a number of studies have shown that remembering names becomes more difficult with age.

Still, as Jenkins and his co-authors point out, the study’s findings — that we remember names better than faces — “is consistent with other research on unfamiliar face processing. Names have both visual and phonological representations, whereas unfamiliar faces present only visual information.”

Why, then, do we think we have greater difficulty remember names than faces?

Because we tend to become aware that we have forgotten a name only after we have already been presented with a face.

“In the embarrassing social situation where a name is forgotten, the face must already have been recognized,” Jenkins and his co-authors write. “There is rarely an opportunity to recognize a name first and then fail to remember a face; instead the apparently poor memory for names is normally conditional on success in face recognition.”

So, don’t be too hard on yourself the next time you find yourself at a social gathering, awkwardly struggling to remember the name of an acquaintance — a name you know you should know.

At least you recognized the face.

FMI: You’ll find  the study on the website for the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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