There are two well-established strategies for remembering people’s names. The simplest basically involves paying attention. Most of the time our memory for someone’s name fails because we never created an effective memory code for it.
An easy strategy for improving your memory for names
We can dramatically improve our memory for names simply by:
- paying attention to the information
- elaborating the information (e.g., “Everett? Is that with two t’s?”; “Rankin? Any relation to the writer?”; “Nielson? What nationality is that?”)
- repeating the information at appropriate times.
The mnemonic strategy for remembering names and faces
The other method, of proven effectiveness but considerably more complicated, is a mnemonic strategy called the face-name association method.
You can find details of this strategy in most memory-improvement books, including my own. It is one of the most widely known and used mnemonic strategies, and it is undoubtedly effective when done properly. Like all mnemonic strategies however, it requires considerable effort to master. And as with most mnemonic strategies, imagery is the cornerstone. However, physical features are not necessarily the best means of categorizing a face.
What research tells us
Specific physical features (such as size of nose) are of less value in helping us remember a person than more global physical features (such as heaviness) or personality judgments (such as friendliness, confidence, intelligence). Rather than concentrating on specific features, we’d be better occupied in asking ourselves this sort of question: “Would I buy a used car from this person?”
However, searching for a distinctive feature (as opposed to answering a question about a specific feature, such as “does he have a big nose?”) is as effective as making a personality judgment. It seems clear that it is the thinking that is so important.
To remember better, think about what you want to remember.
Specifically, make a judgment (“she looks like a lawyer”), or a connection (“she’s got a nose like Barbara Streisand”). The connection can be a visual image, as in the face-name association strategy.
McCarty, D.L. 1980. Investigation of a visual imagery mnemonic device for acquiring face-name associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 145-155.