YORK, England — You are looking right at this person. You are sure that you should know their name, but it stays right on the tip of your tongue. Or so you think.
Researchers with the University of York have discovered that we actually have the scenario backwards. It is the face we have trouble connecting to the name rather than the other way around. Believe it or not, a new study finds, we are better at remembering names than faces.
“Our life experiences with names and faces have misled us about how our minds work,” says Dr. Rob Jenkins, with the university’s Department of Psychology, in a release. “But if we eliminate the double standards we are placing on memory, we start to see a different picture.”
Study authors say we are being unreasonably hard on ourselves when we forget someone’s name. They say that facial recognition comes easily, but coming up with a name involves a more complicated matter of recall. And, of course, we only realize that we are missing a name once we’ve done the easy part –recognizing the face.
The researchers wondered how often people know a person’s name, but have not yet had the opportunity to match a face to that name. Thus, we may walk by many folks we “know” without recognizing them.
The authors came up with a game of recognition to test the two types of memory: name versus face. With both types of memory given a fair shake, participants consistently scored better at remembering names than faces. While facial recognition rates were an impressive 64 percent, name recognition results came in at a whopping 83 percent.
Participants in the recognition game were given a specific amount of time to study and memorize unknown faces and names. This was followed by a test to see which ones they thought they had seen before.
The test was done again, but this time around, participants saw different images of the same faces and saw the names in different fonts. The idea was to make the test match real-life situations where faces are altered by different lighting, hairstyles and other factors and names are printed in different typefaces.
When the same photo was shown, participants recognized the faces 73 percent of the time. Scores for names presented in the same format were 85 percent correct, but only slightly lower (83 percent) when names were presented in different fonts and sizes.
“Our study suggests that, while many people may be bad at remembering names, they are likely to be even worse at remembering faces,” says Jenkins. “This will surprise many people as it contradicts our intuitive understanding.”
Famous faces and names resulted in similar recognition scores for both faces and names.
Researchers say their study results indicate just how hard it is for people to recognize an unknown face. But even if we have seen a face or a name before, we still do a better job of recognizing a name over a face.
“Knowing someone’s face, but not remembering their name is an everyday phenomenon,” says Jenkins. “Our knee-jerk reaction to it is to say that names must be harder to memorize than faces, but researchers have never been able to come up with a convincing explanation as to why that might be. This study suggests a resolution to that problem by showing that it is actually a red herring in the first place.”
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Study findings were published November 14, 2018 in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.