It’s something we’ve all done before – after a brief introduction at a dinner party or event, you turn away to realise you’ve completely blanked on the person’s name. A trick of the mind, people often forget to remember an important name immediately after an exchange.
According to the Director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at University of California there are several reasons for why this is so common. In some situations it’s as simple as the fact that you most likely didn’t care to remember.
“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,” Charan Ranganath told TIME Health.
Much like walking into a room and forgetting why you entered, it doesn’t always come down to ignorance. There are times when you are motivated to remember but find yourself in the same predicament as before. This is because it actually takes a concentrated effort to remember details such as names.
Those with common names are even moreso out of luck because it doesn’t sound like anything different, making it less memorable. But people with unique names aren’t out of the woods either – while their name may be recognised, it’s harder to recall. In an already busy mind, this makes remembering names a task to be honed.
“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,” said Ranganath. “People are often overconfident, and they underestimate how hard it will be later on.”
If you’re keen to make a good impression or making an effort to continue conversation – you already have the odds of remembering a name stacked against you. Ranganath says if you’re already focused on other details in the conversation, it’s less likely you’ll remember to put effort into remembering the name upon introduction.
So what’s the secret to remembering names? You’re more likely to remember a name if you search for something distinctive about the person and their appearance then connect the detail to their name, said Ranganath. This is called using mnemonic devices and is a memory technique that helps to remember important details.
If you feel confident in the conversation, another way you can make an effort to remember a name is by testing yourself while in the discussion. Note the name of the person, then a few minutes later, recall their name in your mind.
“The act of actually testing yourself on the name will help you retain it better in the long term,” said Ranganath.
And if none of those techniques will work, you can always remember to repeat the person’s name after they introduce themselves which sometimes links the face to the name as you say it.
If you do forget a name, try to recall the moment you were introduced, remembering the setting and details of the encounter. Sometimes this method is effective in retracing your steps, as a result remembering the name.
If you feel hopeless about your inability to remember a name, Ranganath admits forgetting names is common – even among memory researchers.
“When you think about all these factors… it’s really a miracle that we can remember anybody’s name.”
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