This is why we remember faces, but forget names

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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We’ve all been there: you bump into someone you know you’ve met before, but you just can’t remember their name.

Or you see someone who looks vaguely familiar coming towards you on the street, and you turn the other way because you’re not entirely sure who they are (just us?)

While these situations can be a tad – shall we say – awkward, they’re not uncommon. In fact, it appears humans have evolved to be particularly good at remembering faces – while our recollection for names is somewhat sketchy in comparison.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr David Ludden explains that humans, and other social animals, have evolved to recognise their “group mates” by their faces.

“We even have dedicated machinery in the brain for processing facial features,” he adds. 

“This makes face recognition quick and relatively accurate.  But what’s really challenging is remembering the names that go with those faces.”

To explain why we find names harder to remember than faces, Dr Ludden references a psychological article that compared the differences between names for people and other, ordinary words.

Four main differences were identified: 

  • Names are arbitrary: we usually know what object a word is referring to, whereas a name can be attached to anyone. For example, we all know what an apple is, but if we reference someone called Sarah, we don’t know who she is (unless we happen to have met her).
  • Names don’t have synonyms: when we forget a word, we can usually use a similar one to describe what we mean. However, we can’t do this with people’s names.
  • Names contain multiple words: many people will have a name and a family name – and remembering both can prove tricky.
  • Names are low-frequency words: it’s easier to forget names because we hear them less often than most common words.

Therefore, Dr Ludden concludes, forgetting a name occurs in the same way as forgetting a word – and from the differences above, we can see that it’s often easier to recall a word than a name.

“Memory lapses are normal, and everyone experiences them,” Dr Ludden adds.

So next time you’re at a party and forget someone’s name, be comforted by the fact that it happens to everyone – science says so, after all.

Images: iStock