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Who is that again? Faces in Context

A meme I made about how awkward I am

Have you ever seen someone, recognized them, but for the life of you couldn’t remember their name or how you know them? Maybe it felt like their name was on the tip of your tongue? I know I have. Not only does this situation teach us how to awkwardly smile and look away, but it can also teach us about how the human mind works. This scenario likely happens because we are seeing the person in a different context than when we originally met them. In psychology, plenty of research has been done on how context impacts recognition, and specifically how we recognize people. Maybe after learning why this happens, we can find a way to improve recognition, and one day become less awkward.

Everyone knows how hard it can be to remember specific information. During that test you didn’t study enough for or when you can’t remember whether you turned the stove off, we often find ourselves wishing we had a perfect memory, like a computer. However, this is not how the human mind works. The worst part is, according to research, we have the memory of these events (studying for the test, turning the stove off, etc.) stored in our minds, it just may not be accessible. Another common phenomenon is when you feel like you have a word “on the tip of your tongue” but can’t think of it. Maybe on a different day, you would have remembered it easily, but on that day you can’t. All your memories are available (stored) in your mind, but at a certain time only some of them are accessible. Why is this? Well, because having all your memories from your whole life at the ready would be too cognitively taxing, only some of them are accessible. There’s no need to be able to remember your first middle school dance when you’re sitting in a job interview twenty-five years later, so the human brain suppresses the unneeded memories until they are recalled again. This is why we rarely bring up random memories without being prompted at all. Although this saves us a lot of brainpower, it can sometimes be frustrating if it prevents us from remembering something we need in the moment. However, by knowing how the process works, we’ve learned ways to manipulate it and help retrieve information.

What memories are available to a person change based on the situation the person is in. Experiencing something that impacts what memories are accessible is called “priming”, and there are many forms of it. For example, if a person was talking to you about cars, many of your memories about cars would likely be accessible, and you may remember a funny story involving cars. In another case, if you walk by a zoo and see the enclosures, and later someone asks you to think of a random animal off the top of your head, you may be more likely to say “monkey” or “lion” compared to a normal day where you might have said “dog” or “bird”. I bet if I asked you right now to name a celebrity in the music industry, you would say Drake, because I presented a meme of him earlier in this blog post. Priming brings information, and therefore memories, to the forefront of your mind. Even if you’re unaware of it, priming is happening constantly, and it affects how we think every day.

Another meme I made, this time about how psychology students often fail to utilize their psychology training in their own lives. I’ve found that memes are one of the fastest ways to teach psychology.

In the field of psychology, the relationship between recalling information and context is well studied. It has been shown that when recalling, if the environment is the same as the environment where the information was first encoded or experienced, the recall is more successful. For example, when studying for a test, it may be better do study in a classroom, which is where you will be tested, rather than outside on a park bench. A park bench would be a very different environment, so when you return to the classroom for the test, you will be at a disadvantage in terms of priming. On the other hand, if you had studied in a classroom, because the testing environment is so similar, you would likely be more effective at remembering the information. Every aspect of the classroom, from the desks to the clock to the atmosphere make you subconsciously think back to when you studied. If you took the test in a different classroom from the one you studied in, your score would likely be good, because most classrooms share certain features that would still prime you to remember the information you had studied.

Example of items with or without context used in the 2004 Bar study

There is clearly a relationship between the context in which information was learned and trying to remember it; this phenomenon has been studied for decades. More recently, psychologists have examined how the context an image is presented in affects the ability of a person to recall it. Rather than the room you studied the image in, this research focused on the background of the picture itself. This information was not the focus of the image but was still seen by participants as they examined the images. In a study by Bar in 2004, participants were shown images with a focus object and a background, or context. Then, in a subsequent memory test, they were shown either the same image with the same context, or an image that contained the same focus object in a new context. For example, an image of a top hat on a man would be shown to a person, then later a top hat either on a man or alone. Participants were asked to state if they had been shown the focus object before. It was found that if an old focus image was shown with a new context or no context, it became harder to remember then if it was shown with its old context. The person would have a harder time remembering that they had ever been shown a top hat because the context in which the image was presented had been changed. This study and many like it demonstrated that the context that surrounds a piece of information affects how the information is encoded, even if you aren’t consciously trying to remember the context.

Although you’ve probably never seen this man, you can make quite accurate guesses about his race, age, mood, and other things within seconds of looking at him. It’s also likely that you looked at his face as soon as he was on your screen.

The concept of context relating to memory can be applied to faces and facial recognition. Faces are unique stimuli; our brain does not treat them in the same way that it does other things. We see faces very often, so we are great at recognizing them and gleaning information from them. Facial recognition is what is known as an automatic process (Gruppuso et al. 2007). Automatic processes are practiced tasks that happen quickly, automatically, and efficiently. In the same way you read words the moment you see them without thinking about it, when you see a face, you immediately recognize the person’s age, race, gender, mood, and many other characteristics in an instant. This is remarkable, especially because faces are so complex. Another reason that faces are different from other stimuli is that they attract our attention extremely well (Gruppuso et al. 2007). If you walk into a room and there is a person in it, it is likely that you first look at the persons face, at least for an instant, before looking at the rest of the room, no matter how interesting the room is. Faces demand our attention because they are so useful and interesting in our everyday lives. This demand for attention also makes faces very memorable. Attention is required to encode memories, and because we almost always pay attention to faces, it becomes very likely that we will remember the faces we see. We even remember tiny details that help us distinguish similar faces in a way that we never could with another object. With familiar faces, we do this automatically.

All of this makes faces a unique study model to investigate how context impacts retrieval. However, there is still minimal literature on this topic; I could only find two studies that performed an experiment on the effect of context on facial recognition. With these two studies, we can begin to learn about how context and facial recognition work together, and if it’s different from context and standard memory tests.

Image and context as presented in the Gruppuso et al. study

The first experiment was performed by Gruppuso et al. in 2007. For this study, pictures of faces and pictures of contexts (locations such as building interiors or exteriors, tourist locations, animals, or sports) were gathered. Faces were randomly matched with contexts, put side by side, and split up into groups. Each participant be shown the group of images one by one (each containing both a face and a place) and later were subjected to a surprise memory test. In this test, they would be shown a mix of images, some with the same face/context combination as the memory test, some with the same face and a new context, and some with a new face and new context. They were asked if the face was one they had seen during the study period (the were not asked any questions about the context). They were also asked if the face was familiar (this would mean they couldn’t remember if it was in the study, but it seemed familiar).

The results of this study revealed that people were more likely to correctly remember faces if they were presented with the correct context. It’s important to note that only the correct combination of the face and the context would result in the best rates of correct recall, not a face studied with any context that had been studied. This shows that the context was stored with the face as a pair, so that showing the context would prime the corresponding face. A context would not prime all of the faces that had been studied, only the one it went with. However, it was found that the context had no impact on if the faces seemed familiar. This means that people were usually remembering faces well enough for them to seem familiar, but often needed the context to actually recall that the face had been in the experiment.

Image and context from the Tunney et al. study

The second experiment about facial recognition and context, performed by Tunney et al. in 2012, was extremely similar to the previous one. The results also aligned with the previous experiment. Based on the data, Tunney et al. concluded that face recognition was more accurate when the faces were presented within the same context that they were studied. It was also found that there was no difference in accuracy in switched contexts (contexts that had been studied, but were presented during the test phase with a different face) or new contexts (contexts that had never been shown during the study phase). This again shows that a memory requires the specific context to be primed; not even a context from seconds later will provide the same priming affect.

These studies, coupled with the existing research on recollection and context, go a long way in explaining why we sometimes have a hard time remembering where we know people from. When you encounter someone in a context different from where you met them or know them, it can be difficult to remember them, even if you know them quite well. We are often left with a feeling of familiarity rather than a full memory. Only when we return to the context in which we know them can we remember how we know them. So the next time you can’t remember who someone is and have to awkwardly look away, don’t be too hard on yourself. Unfortunately for people like you and I (who are too shy to ask the person where we know them from) this is just how the human mind works.


Bar, M. Visual objects in context. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 617–629 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1476.

Cohn, Melanie, et al. “Recollection versus Strength as the Primary Determinant of Hippocampal Engagement at Retrieval.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 106, no. 52, National Academy of Sciences, 2009, pp. 22451–55, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40536465.

Gruppuso, V., Lindsay, D. S., and Masson, M. E. J. (2007). I’d know that face anywhere. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 14, 1085–1089. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03193095.

Mandler, George. “Familiarity Breeds Attempts: A Critical Review of Dual-Process Theories of Recognition.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 3, no. 5, [Association for Psychological Science, Sage Publications, Inc.], 2008, pp. 390–99, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40212261.

Tulving, E., & Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80(5), 352–373. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0020071.

Tunney, R. et al. (2012) Does the Butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon require a dual process explanation? A signal detection analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 3, 1664-1078. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00208/full#B13.

Sources for images (in order or appearance):



Bar, M. Visual objects in context. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 617–629 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1476.


Gruppuso, V., Lindsay, D. S., and Masson, M. E. J. (2007). I’d know that face anywhere. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 14, 1085–1089. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03193095.

Tunney, R. et al. (2012) Does the Butcher-on-the-bus phenomenon require a dual process explanation? A signal detection analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 3, 1664-1078. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00208/full#B13.

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