Of all the social gaffes, none is perhaps more common than meeting a new person, exchanging names and promptly forgetting theirs — forcing you to either swallow your pride and ask again, or languish in uncertainty forever.
Why do we keep making this mistake? There are a few potential explanations, says Charan Ranganath, the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis.
Why you forget
The simplest explanation: you’re just not that interested, Ranganath says. “People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn. Sometimes you are motivated to learn people’s names, and other times it’s more of a passing thing, and you don’t at the time think it’s important.”
But this isn’t always the case. Often you really do want to remember, and find yourself forgetting anyway, Ranganath says. This may be because you underestimate the work necessary to remember something as seemingly simple as a name.
A common name may be forgettable because it doesn’t strike your mind as interesting, or because you know multiple people with that name already. On the other hand, a rare name may be easy to recognize but harder to recall. And any name, common or not, has to fight for space in your already-crowded brain. Given all these factors, it takes more effort than you think to lock down a name.
“You’re not only remembering the name, but you’re remembering the name in relation to a face. Even if you get the information in, which we call encoding, you might not be able to find the information because there’s so much competition between other names and other faces in your memory,” Ranganath says. “People are often overconfident, and they underestimate how hard it will be later on.”
People who get distracted by making a good impression or holding a conversation may fall into this camp, Ranganath says. In focusing your energy elsewhere, you may neglect to file away the information you just learned, then struggle to mentally return to that part of the interaction.
How to remember
Mnemonic devices can be helpful, Ranganath says. He recommends finding something distinctive about the person or their appearance, and relating it back to their name. Remembering a common name like John might be difficult, for example, but if you can mentally categorize someone as John the Jogger, it may stick out more.
Finding ways to test yourself, even as the conversation is ongoing, may also be helpful, he adds. Take note of the person’s name when they say it, then quiz yourself on it a few minutes, or even seconds, later. “Try to recall the information immediately or soon after you learn it,” Ranganath says. “The act of actually testing yourself on the name will help you retain it better in the long term.”
Repeating the person’s name after they say it may also trigger a more powerful effect than listening alone. “If you generate something, it’s actually easier to remember than if you just passively take it in,” he says. “You’re actually learning to immediately see that face and then produce this name.”
And if you do forget, envision the moment you met somebody — the setting, other things you talked about and so on — to try to cognitively retrace your steps, Ranganath says.
But if all else fails, know that forgetting names is a very common problem, even among memory researchers. “When you think about all these factors,” Ranganath says, “it’s really a miracle that we can remember anybody’s name.”