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Why we remember faces but not names? Strategies to remember names

Have you ever met someone and immediately forgot their name? Or you meet someone, and then down the road, you recognize their face but cannot recall their name? Well, you are not alone; this is very common. The everyday experience of encountering a well-known person and not being able to identify them is a common form of paramnesia (a disorder of memory). It often happens when we see the person outside the usual context or outside where we initially met them (Higbee, 2001). Forgetting someone’s name is embarrassing and aggravating, and often we have tip-of-the-tongue states….so close yet so far. A solution to this issue could be to get names tattooed on our foreheads, but no one wants that! So, are there ways to help solve this awkward problem? The answer is yes! There are a lot of practical solutions to helping us remember names, leaving those embarrassing moments in the past.


Remembering names and faces is a paired-associate task, as we must remember the face and recall the name. In most cases, we see the face and recall the name. As we know, this does not always happen, and we go blank on recalling the person’s name. We remember what we see better than the information we hear and generally, we see faces and hear names (Higbee, 2001). Additionally, difficulties in name retrieval arise because names are less activated than other units of semantic information because names are usually unique to individuals. Semantic information is less individual, such as knowing someone’s occupation; for example, it is most likely multiple people you know share the same profession, leading to a higher activation. Therefore, we can often remember someone’s career (semantic information) but not their name (Harris, 1995).

SOMEONE SAYS HI AND I FORGET YOUR NAME - Awkward Seal | Meme Generator

A vast volume of research finds that name memory is inferior to face memory for most people; yet this is not totally the case. Most research on memory for faces uses recall tasks to test name memory and recognition tasks to test face memory. However, a study used the same recognition memory framework (recognition) to compare memory for faces and names. They found a clear advantage for the recognition of names over faces. Across the three experiments they ran, they found that recognition of previously unfamiliar names surpasses recognition of previously unfamiliar faces (Burton, 2018). This study indicates that when you know someone’s face but not their name, it is because we are better at recognition than recall. 

The difference between recall and recognition is the number of cues available to help memory retrieval. Cues or aids typically help us remember and recall information. Recall has fewer cues than recognition, making it a more challenging process (Budiu, 2104). Seeing a familiar face is a cue that should help you recall the person’s name; however, that is often not enough of a cue, so we have trouble identifying their name. So, what are some strategies to help us recall the names of people we just met

Make the name meaningful 

Some studies have found that names are more difficult to recall than personal identity information because names are meaningless (Cohen, 1990). Once you learn someone’s name, it is best to make the name meaningful and relevant to you. This is not as hard to do as you think. Many names probably have pre-existing meaning to you. For example, look through a phone book; you might be astonished at the number of surnames that already have meaning to you. Such as the last names “White, Green, Hennessey, or Hersey.” For names that don’t have meaning to you, you can come up with a way to make them meaningful. However, even if that fails, merely trying to create meaning takes a deeper level of processing, leading to better long-term memory (Higbee, 2001).  

Pay attention  

It sounds simple. Just pay attention. Yet, it’s a more challenging task than you think. It is easy to become distracted from your thoughts while in a conversation. Sometimes our minds wander, distracted or focused on what to say next in a conversation.  Maybe other noises in the room pull away our attention. Our attention is limited, as we have limited cognitive resources. We can only truly focus on one task at a time, so trying to be present, while drowning out any outside noises, can help us recall a person’s name.


Focus on the face 

Now don’t be creepy with this step, please, but focusing on a distinct feature of a person’s face can help you remember their face and help anchor the name in your memory. All faces have basic features, and finding distinct features is hard at first, but this skill can be developed with practice. It has been found that we better remember faces with distinctive and distinguishable characteristics. For example, we often remember very “attractive” or very “unattractive” faces more than moderately “attractive” faces, and we also remember faces of our race better (Own-race effect). Remembering a unique characteristic while paired with the name in a meaningful, humorous, or notable fashion, can help facilitate the recall of a name (Higbee, 2001). 

Hopefully, the next time you meet someone, you will consider using these strategies to keep a person’s name in reach. You will avoid being the person who must smile and wave awkwardly when seeing a familiar face. Instead, you will be the person who remembers names, allowing you to create and build more meaningful connections. 


Budiu , Raluca. “Memory Recognition and Recall in User Interfaces.” Nielsen Norman Group, 6 July 2014, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/recognition-and-recall/. 

Burton, A Mike, et al. “I Recognise Your Name but I Can’t Remember Your Face: An Advantage for Names in Recognition Memory.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 72, no. 7, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/1747021818813081. 

Cohen, Gillian. “Why Is It Difficult to Put Names to Faces?” British Journal of Psychology, vol. 81, no. 3, Aug. 1990, pp. 287–97. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1990.tb02362.x.

Harris, Daryl M., and Janice Kay. “I Recognize Your Face but I Can’t Remember Your Name: Is It Because Names Are Unique?” British Journal of Psychology, vol. 86, no. 3, Aug. 1995, pp. 345–58. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1995.tb02757.x.

Higbee, Kenneth L. “13 – Using Mnemonics: Remembering Peoples Faces and Name.” Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It, Paragon House, New York, 2001. 

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