With the Christmas party the season is approaching, there will be plenty of opportunities to revive the familiar and unhealthy-unpleasant social situation unable to remember a familiar name.
This cringe-worthy experience leads many of us to think we are terrible to remember names.
However, new research has shown that this intuition is misleading. We are actually better to remember names than faces.
The authors of the study, from the University of York, suggest that when we throw ourselves to forget someone's name, we put unfair demands on our brains.
Remembering a person's face in this situation is dependent on recognition, but remember their name is a question of recall, and it is already well established that people are much better at it earlier than the latter.
The researchers also point out that we are only aware that we have forgotten a name when we have already recognized the face.
We rarely have to confront the problem of feeling a name, but not a face – remaining happily unaware of the countless faces we should recognize but go straight past the street.
For the study, the researchers designed a "fair test", pitting names against faces on equal terms.
They set up an experiment to put equal demands on participants' ability to remember faces and names by testing both in a game of recognition.
The results showed participants consistently higher in remembering names than faces – recognizing as little as 64% of faces and up to 83% of the names in the test.
Dr Rob Jenkins, from the psychological department at the University of York, said: "Our study suggests that, although many people may be bad at remembering names, they are likely to get even worse in remembering faces. surprise many people as it contradicts our intuitive understanding.
"Our life experiences with names and faces have misled us about how our minds work, but if we eliminate the double standards we keep in mind, we start to see another picture."
For the study, participants received an allocated period of time to memorize unknown faces and names and then tested who they thought they had seen before.
The researchers then repeated the test, but this time they complicated the experiment by showing participants different images of the same faces and the names of different fonts. This was to make the test as realistic as possible, because real faces appear slightly different due to factors like lighting and hairstyle every time you see them.
On average, participants felt 73% of faces when they showed the same photo and 64% when they showed another photo. On the other hand, they recognized 85% of the names presented in the same format and 83% in different fonts and sizes.
When researchers presented faces and names of famous people, participants achieved a much more balanced grade – recognized one or more as many faces as they named.
The results show that we are particularly bad to recognize unknown faces, but even with faces and names we have encountered earlier, we still do not perform better to recognize faces than names in any way. Dr Jenkins added: "Knowing someone's face, but not remembering their names is a common phenomenon.
Our knee reaction on it is to say that names must be harder to memorize than faces, but researchers have never been able to come up with a convincing explanation of why it may be. This study suggests a solution to that problem by showing that it is actually a red herring in the first place. "
I recognize your name, but I can not remember your face: an advantage for names in recognition memory is published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The research was funded by the European Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, UK.
Materials provided by University of York. Note Content can be edited for style and length.