Science Explains Why We Can't Remember People's Names When We Meet Them

by Dan Scotti

Let me paint a picture for you.

You’re out at some event with a friend. Maybe a dinner party. You don’t recognize the majority of the faces in the room, but you’re a people-person, so it doesn’t really concern you in the slightest.

As you make your rounds, you periodically stop to introduce yourself to a few guests who look somewhat engaging.

You spend the next few hours shaking hands, exchanging some boring biographical data and proudly executing a few jokes that you’ve been practicing in the nights prior (all of which are landing).

A little later in the night, a woman taps you on the shoulder and says, “It was a pleasure meeting you.” You glance at her -- and vividly remember speaking to her for a large portion of the night -- but for whatever reason, you can’t remember what the f*ck her name is.

Catherine? No. Jen. She looks a Jen, but I don’t think that’s it, either.

Suddenly, you find yourself in an awkward spot. “How could I forget this woman’s name?" you ask yourself.

You’re fully aware of the fact that she divulged this piece of information less than a half an hour ago. But, as it so happens, it has since slipped your mind.

I’m sure you have a story that’s something like the scene I’ve just illustrated, an instance when you met a person and learned his or her name, only to have forgotten it some time shortly after.

It’s an incredibly frustrating occurrence, especially because you know the true potential of your memory. You’re capable of remembering the birthdays of almost all your family members (even distant ones) and can even recollect the Knicks’ starting lineups every year dating back to 1999.

But the names of strangers? For some reason, those always prove to be more elusive.

Well, according to Victoria Woollaston for Daily Mail, there may be a scientific answer for why we can never remember people’s names.

Woollaston says our brains are hardwired to recognize facial details -- you know, like eye color, nose length, mouth shape -- but names, which, to us, are completely arbitrary titles, present a more challenging task for our brains to try and tackle.

“Because names are random and hold no specific information in them,” she explains, “the brain struggles to retain them... And if the brain can't make connections between multiple pieces of information, particularly things that are already familiar to the individual, it's more likely to forget it.”

This is why you’re more likely to remember the name of a new athlete on your hometown sports team or the title of your favorite artist’s new hit record. Your brain functions optimally when it can make connections between information that's familiar to you, which, in this case, is your hometown or your favorite artist.

Contrarily, when you meet people for the first time, you have little to no context about them outside of your brief introduction, so their names typically go in one ear and out the other.

Part of why this happens so often is the “next-in-line” effect, which explains how our brains are not capable of both taking in and giving new information at the same time.

Woollaston says, “Instead of watching and listening to the other [people], the brain starts focusing on its own routine -- what they'll say and how they'll say it.”

This is perhaps what happens when you’re introduced to a stranger. You focus so much on what you’re going to say that you fail to pay attention to the things the other person is saying -- like his or her name, for instance.

To illustrate this further, a group of TCU researchers conducted an experiment in which test subjects were divided into groups and prompted to introduce themselves. Afterward, they were asked to try and recall this information.

Surprisingly, participants were capable of accurately recalling information about all members of their group -- except for the person who spoke directly before them. They were so focused on what they were going to say that they didn't process any new information about anyone else.

Woollaston also speaks on the importance of “working memory,” a system related to our short-term memories.

One of the driving forces of our working memory is repetition. Due to the limited amount of storage inside our working memories, over time, our brains will automatically retain the pieces of information that it deems worthy and forget those that seem insignificant.

Therefore, unless you repeatedly focus your attention on certain bits of information, they will ultimately fade as time progresses.

With things like the names of strangers -- unless you’re consciously repeating “Kelly” under your breath for 20 minutes -- it’s likely you’ll forget them as you fail to pay them any mind.

So, next time you’re at that dinner party, at least you’ll know what to do.