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Famous or Not: the Competition between Familiarity and Recollection

Do you know Brett Cohen? Sounds familiar? Even if you answered no, just keep reading. Let me show you how he made himself “famous” in one night.

Brett Cohen was a YouTuber who dreamed of being famous. One day, he decided to do a celebrity prank in the busiest streets in New York City and to see what it feels like to be at the center of attention. Brett dressed like a typical celebrity: a striped shirt with top buttons unbuttoned, sunglasses (classic!), and combed hair. He also hired some people to pretend as his bodyguards, personal assistants, and even paparazzi and reporters. Off he went, on this exciting journey. Once Brett walked from the NBC Observation Deck into the public, guess what? The crowd went nuts. People formed circles around him, yelled his name, and rushed to get a picture with him. When people were asked where they knew Brett from, they all responded with Spider-Man. One of the conversations went like this:

Common Cohen (up) vs Famous Cohen (bottom) How did he trick people into thinking that he was a celebrity? (pictures from Cohen 2012)

The “reporter”: Do you know Brett Cohen? 
The guy: Yea.
The “reporter”: Where do you know him from?
The guy: Well, when he was in Spider-Man? 
The “reporter”: Yea?
The guy: Yea. Very good actor.
The “reporter”: You liked him there?
The guy: Yea.
(Cohen 2012)

Clearly, people recognized Brett as someone else, as we all do sometimes. (For example, when you walk in the street and suddenly see somebody who looks like your friend, but as you are about to pat on her shoulder and say, “what’s up,” you realize you got the wrong person. Oops. Awkward…) But how does this happen? How can we recognize someone we don’t know?   

Before talking about what went “wrong,” let’s first talk about recognition. To recognize means to verify whether the information (like faces, words, etc.) has been experienced before, or, in other words, if what you see matches what you retrieve from memory. In 1991, Jacoby theorized that there are two factors involved in the recognition memory: recollection and familiarity. Recollection, as defined by Jacoby, is a consciously controlled, intentional use of memory to retrieve the contextual details, which requires attentional resources. Familiarity is the feeling of recognition without retrieving the associated details; it is also an automatic process for making recognition memory judgments and doesn’t require intention or attention. These two factors can work together on the recognition judgment. For example, when you are doing a multiple-choice question during an exam, you feel familiar with one of the choices (as you should do), and you remember seeing it in one of the lecture videos, so you recognize it as the correct answer. In this case, familiarity facilitates recollection in the recognition process, and it takes less time for you to make the decision. However, recollection and familiarity can also interfere with each other. For example, when you encounter the same multiple-choice question during an exam as in practice, one choice seems familiar to you (because you chose this one during practice), but you also vaguely remember that the other one is the correct answer. In this case, you have to choose between “trusting” the familiarity or recollection, so you need a longer time to recognize the correct answer.

familiarity vs recollection

Often times, we make recognition judgment without noticing the conflicts between familiarity and recollection (e.g., recognizing your classmate from the psych class). Sometimes, however, the competition between conscious and unconscious use of memory causes errors or false recognition, e.g., recognizing Brett as acting in Spider-Man before. Jacoby and his colleagues conducted many studies that showed when familiarity and recollection are in opposition to one another, the former one is likely to be the source of error. This is because recollection requires attentional resources both at storing and retrieving the information. However, using familiarity for recognition judgment is an automatic process that is not affected by attention. Thus, when the probability of recollection is influenced by the limited attentional capacity, the recognition judgment is solely based on familiarity. In Jacoby and Whitehouse’s study in 1989, they managed to use familiarity to produce false recognition.

In this study, Jacoby and Whitehouse had the subjects first study a list of words and then take a recognition test. Unlike regular recognition tests, Jacoby and Whitehouse inserted a flashed context word preceding every test word, and this context word either matched or didn’t match the test word. The presentation of the context words meant to arouse the sense of familiarity of subjects without them realizing it. As expected, people in the unaware condition were more likely to have false recognition when the context words match the test words. The results showed that even when people were not aware of the information, they would unconsciously perceive it, and this unconscious perception can influence the processing of the later item. In other words, people would process the later information in the context of the unconscious perception, which arouses the feeling of familiarity and thus results in the wrong recognition judgment. By contrast, when subjects were aware of the context word, they were less likely to have false recognition if the context word matched test words. This is because, with the awareness of the context word, subjects tended to question if the sense of familiarity came from the previously studied word or the context words. Thus, they intentionally used their memory to retrieve the contextual information, a.k.a. recollection. This discounting of familiarity would then reduce the possibility of false recognition. 

Peter-Man? Spider-Parker?

So we now know that recognition judgment based on familiarity without the check of recollection could cause false recognition, but what does this mean in the context of Brett? How could “Brett Cohen” become a famous name that everybody knew? How did familiarity lead to this false recognition? Jacoby, Woloshyn, and Kelley conducted research on this false fame effect in 1989. False fame effect is the phenomenon when people study unknown names under divided attention and then judge those names famous compared to the new nonfamous ones. In the lab, the researchers asked participants to read out loud a list of both famous and unknown people. The participants then took a fame-judgment task on another list that contained studied or unstudied, famous or nonfamous names (e.g., is this name “famous” or “nonfamous”). Finally, they did a recognition test (e.g., have you studied this name before). Expectedly, participants in the divided-attention group performed poorly on the recognition test and were more likely to call an old nonfamous name “famous” than the full-attention group. This indicates that when the participants didn’t try to remember the names, they were less likely to recollect the source of the old nonfamous name. Thus, they failed to discriminate the familiarity produced by having recently read the name from the familiarity produced by the name’s being a famous one. One thing worth pointing out is that processing names are different from processing words because names are usually meaningless, except for the famous ones. This makes them harder to store and more likely to cause false recognition when attention is divided (but Cole Walsh suggested otherwise). Same as in recognizing Brett Cohen. When people couldn’t retrieve related details, e.g., when or where they have heard the name Brett Cohen from, their recognition judgment was only based on familiarity. In other words, they thought Brett was “famous” because they just learned his name and mistaken that sense of familiarity as knowing him a long time ago.

Brett Cohen smiles at us 🙂

Alright, so then even Brett was “famous,” why did people think he was an actor who played in Spider-Man but not in other movies or TV shows? Above is a profile picture of Brett. Do you think he looks like Tom Holland, who played Spider-Man most recently? Or Tobey Maguire, another Spider-Man? Andrew Garfield, yet another Spider-Man? I guess most of you would say, no way, Brett doesn’t look like any of those actors. But you see when the reporter asked those people in Times Square that night, they all gave the opposite answer. So here comes the question: what was “wrong” with those people?

The Spider-Mans don’t even look like Spider-Mans!

Before answering this question, though, I want to ask you another question: has anybody told you that you look like celebrities? If the answer is yes, then what made them think so? Maybe because your eyes or nose is similar to that celebrity, or the side-angle of your face gives others a sense of familiarity that reminded them of some famous people. Similarly, some features or certain angles of Brett’s face might remind the crowd of one of the Spide-Mans, so they thought Brett was an actor. But why couldn’t they tell the difference? This again comes to the competition between familiarity and recollection in terms of face recognition (Talia Richkin has more to say). People recognize faces by both individual features and configuration information. Features refer to the individual parts, such as nose, eyes, mouth, etc., and the configuration means a combination of features.

Jones and Barlett studied how familiarity influenced discrimination between old and new faces in 2009. They manipulated the pictures at the configural level and feature-level by swapping the combination of inner features (eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth) with another face (i.e., conjunction lure) or just changing one feature (i.e., feature lure). Then, they presented participants with the original face and asked them to judge if the following faces (including studied faces, conjunction lures, feature lures, and new faces) were “same” or “different” from the face they studied. Surprisingly, even at a short delay between study and test or when the studied face was displayed multiple times (which was supposed to increase participants’ use of recollection), the participants were still more likely to judge the conjunction faces or new faces “same” as the original face instead of correctly choosing “different”. This indicates that recollection was not used successfully to oppose the familiarity and to reject the false face recognition. Besides, face recognition based on familiarity is useful and effortless but prone to error. Also, processing faces is different from processing words for the same reason as processing names. Although we know what a face typically looks like, an unknown face means nothing to us. Thus, as long as the overall configuration of the face feels familiar to us, we are likely to rely on familiarity to make recognition judgments. And this is probably why Brett “became” a Spider-Man that night.

Well, maybe Brett does look like a Spider-Man?

So, to sum up, while recollection and familiarity can facilitate one another in the recognition process, they are also competing with each other to affect our judgment. Being familiar with something and using familiarity as a basis for recognition judgment are automatic processes. However, recollection requires attentional resources both at the storing and retrieving of information. Even though familiarity often makes it faster and easier for us to recognize something, it is also susceptible to errors. Nonetheless, we can recollect the related details and pay attention at retrieval to ensure we are not making mistakes and to avoid the awkwardness of talking to the wrong person. Or, you know, watch yourself on YouTube, being tricked by the celebrity prank.



Cohen, B. [Brett Cohen]. (2012). Fake Celebrity Pranks New York City. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYU1a0lTTTw.

Jacoby, L.L., Woloshyn, V., Kelley, C. (1989). Becoming Famous Without Being Recognized: Unconscious Influences of Memory Produced by Dividing Attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 118(2), 115-125.

Jacoby, L.L., Whitehouse, K. (1989). An illusion of Memory: False Recognition Influenced by Unconscious Perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 118(2), 126-135.

Jacoby, L.L. (1991). A Process Dissociation Framework: Separating Automatic from Intentional Uses of Memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 513-541.

Jones, T.C., Bartlett, J.C. (2009). When false recognition is out of control: The case of facial conjunctions. Memory and Cognition, 37(2), 143-157.


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