People often apologise for being useless at remembering names, as if it’s some idiosyncratic quirk of theirs. In fact, with the exception of memory champs and their fancy mnemonics, plenty of research shows that most of the rest of us are especially hopeless at remembering people’s names, as compared with other items of information, such as professions.
Names are arbitrary tags, and so we struggle to embed them in a web of meaningful connections. Research has even shown that people are poorer at remembering names than occupations when the same word is used (e.g. “Mr Carpenter” vs. “a carpenter”), presumably because treating the word as a name robs it of its wider semantic associations.
But that’s not to say we can’t do a better job of remembering names if we make more effort. And a new study suggests a way to untap this potential – turn the task of memorising names into a game.
Say you’re off to a business lunch. You and a colleague could allocate points for any names you remember successfully afterwards. For example, you get 10 points for the boss, 5 points for her assistant, and a point a piece for the remainder of her team. The new research suggests that incentivising the memory challenge in this way will give you a far better chance of recalling the most important names. This could prove handy, helping you make a good impression in future meetings.
Sara Festini and her colleagues put this idea to the test in a study with 32 undergrads. Participants were presented with pictures of 28 male faces, each paired either with a name (e.g. “Mr Fisher”) or an occupation (“fisher”). Each face-word pair had a designated point value – either 10 points or 1 point and participants had two chances to study the series of faces and their attached information. A 3-minute filler task came next before the memory test began. The participants were shown the faces and had to recall the relevant name or occupation.
Overall, participants were much better at recalling occupations than names (47 per cent correct vs. 27 per cent), consistent with past research. But crucially, participants did a superior job at remembering high value (10-point) names, than low value names (33 per cent vs. 21 per cent). It’s as if the extra incentive prompted participants to go to greater lengths to process the names and encode them more deeply. In contrast, point values made no difference to success with recalling occupations, perhaps because they had already been embedded automatically into a web of semantic connections.
When the experiment was repeated with nonsense words used for names and occupations (e.g. “monid” for occupation and “Mr Monid” for a name), performance was equivalent for names and occupations because the occupations had now been stripped of their automatic meaningful connotations. This time, higher point values improved people’s memory for both names and occupations, presumably because both were now able to benefit from the effort of extra processing and encoding.
For a third and final experiment, faces were again paired with standard names and occupations (carpenter / Mr Carpenter) but this time participants were required to rehearse the information for each face out loud, eight times. This was intended to interfere with any attempts at deeper processing, to see if that was the mechanism by which higher points led to better memory. And that’s exactly what happened, with high-value names now recalled no more effectively than low-value names.
The researchers said their study revealed “a method to improve proper name learning”, although they were cautious about how it might be applied in real life. “Future experiments are needed to determine if deliberately assigning high value to important names in everyday situations similarly boosts name recall as it did in a controlled lab setting.”
But their main message remains upbeat: “Although names are difficult to remember,” the researchers concluded, “actions can be taken to facilitate their recall.”
Festini, S., Hartley, A., Tauber, S., and Rhodes, M. (2012). Assigned value improves memory of proper names. Memory, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2012.747613