There is a very simple reason why it’s so easy for the names of new acquaintances to slip right out of your head within moments of being introduced: Names are kind of meaningless. Memory experts say that the more pathways back to a memory you have, the easier it becomes to retrieve that memory, and this just doesn’t often happen naturally with names. For example, even details as seemingly minor as what you were wearing on a particular day or what the weather happened to be doing can make it easier to recall other events that occurred that day, like the particulars of a conversation you had with a friend. But names, on the other hand, usually don’t give your brain much information to grasp onto beyond the name itself.
Sure, there may be family history or a great deal of sentimental meaning behind a person’s first name, but when you meet someone at a party, there’s no readily apparent reason why this guy should be named Mike and that guy should be named Max. Names are “completely arbitrary, and hold no specific information in them,” the narrator of a new AsapSCIENCE video on name-forgetting explains. “And if your brain can’t make connections between multiple pieces of information … then you’re more likely to forget that information.”
It’s much easier, on the other hand, to remember a person’s occupation, a phenomenon memory experts call the Baker-baker effect. (As in, it’s easier to remember someone is a baker — perhaps because you’ve formed a mental image of your new acquaintance in a kitchen, covered in flour — than it is to remember that his or her last name is Baker.) In one study, researchers first showed participants photographs of strangers, including a couple of lines on the person’s name and occupation, and asked them to recall that information a short time later, when presented with the picture again. The majority of the study volunteers got the person’s job correctly, but struggled with the name.
Memory experts offer ideas to counteract this annoying and often embarrassing psychological quirk, some of which work better than others in practice. You can try repeating the person’s name several times after the introduction, or invent associations between the name and some other piece of information — if her name is Cindy, picture her singing! — as the AsapSCIENCE guys suggest in an additional video offering tips.
Another recent study on the subject suggests that most people are overly confident when asked to predict how accurate they’ll be at recalling new names. But when they realize that they’re not as good at remembering names as they’d like to think they are, and subsequently spend more time consciously trying to commit the name to memory, it seems to improve their ability to recall new names. There are times when it is best to simply admit defeat and plan accordingly.