Why can't I remember people's names

Memory Gaps: What was your name again?

Sorry, I just can't remember names! We like to say that when we can't remember the name of someone else shortly after shaking hands. Selective memory weakness for names? Conceivable, but in fact we have a hard time dealing with faces. At least that is what a small series of experiments suggest that British researchers are now describing in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

The team led by psychologist Mike Burton from the University of York presented almost 70 mostly female students with the faces and names of 20 unknown women and men each on a screen. In one variant of the experiment the faces and associated names were presented together, in another variant they were presented separately from each other. In addition, in the subsequent memory test, the same faces were partly shown in different photos and the names were written in a different font and size. This was followed by a memory test: Half of the theoretically known faces and names reappeared (separately from one another) on the screen, but mixed up with unknown faces and names. How many familiar names and faces would the test subjects recognize in the test?

The researchers recorded a consistently higher success rate with the names. Between 83 and 86 percent (with different fonts), but only 64 to 67 percent of the faces (with different image variants) were recognized, i.e. almost 20 percentage points less. If the picture and writing were identical, the difference was smaller in each case, but here, too, the test subjects recognized the names better than the faces. In a further variant of the experiment, Burton and his colleagues checked whether the better memory for names was only found in unknown people, and indeed: with prominent names and faces, the test subjects remembered equally well that they had already seen them in the round .

So why do many people think they have a particularly hard time with names? The authors suspect that most people are actually even more difficult to remember faces, but that they do not perceive this as often in everyday life. If we pass a casual acquaintance on the street without recognizing the person, we often don't even know. From the present experiment, however, one can only partially draw conclusions about the situation described at the beginning: If a name no longer comes to mind, it is not just a matter of passive recognition, but of active recall from memory - a much more difficult task. It's just not that easy to research. In order to prove that someone not only recognizes a face, but can specifically imagine it in the mind's eye, the test subjects would have to be able to draw outstandingly.