Why Remembering Names Is Hard — And What to Do About It

Can't remember people's names but can rattle off phone numbers without a hitch? There's a reason for that

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Robert Kirk

I’m utterly horrible at remembering names, something that always seemed odd to me because my memory is otherwise quite decent. Give me a statistic or an odd fact and generally it will stick— but introduce me to someone and milliseconds later, the name is gone.

That’s why I was delighted to see this round-up of research on the issue on an excellent British psychology blog, PsyBlog. So why are names so tricky even for people with good memories to recall?

The author writes:

The most popular explanation in the research is that names are essentially arbitrary and meaningless.

For most of us our names give away few clues about our appearance, our personalities or anything about us, except maybe a rough age, ethnicity, social class and whether our parents were celebrities (hello ‘Moon Unit’, ‘Tu Morrow’ and ‘Moxie Crimefighter’—yes, all real names of celebrity offspring).

If, for example, I was called ‘The Pink Panther’, and I happened to look like a pink panther, you’d almost certainly find it easy to remember my name.

Similarly, names that link people to their occupations are also more easily recalled. And oddly, people who have names that link them to a job (either humorously or seriously) tend to be more likely to actually engage in that line of work. Indeed, for years, the British magazine, New Scientist has made a sport of finding the best examples of what it labeled “nominative determinism.”

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Some highlights: Eric Hacker is a computer security specialist and Dr. Eric Sade, a dentist; Priscilla Feral is an animal rights activist; Jonathan Treat Paine is a neurological surgeon; Dr. Richard Payne is a pain medicine doctor; Chris Moneymaker, a poker star. I’ll leave it to you to Google for the many urologists with double entendres.

Even stranger, other research has found that the first letter of one’s name is also linked to occupational and geographical preferences. For example, women named Virginia are more likely to live in Virginia Beach and Philadelphia has more than its share of Philips. This holds true for last names as well, so it’s not just that parents choose names that link to locations. If you are named Dennis, you are more likely to become a dentist; Larry and Laura’s are overrepresented in the legal profession.

These names— since they are not just arbitrary— are easier to remember.

I always thought that unusual names—like mine— have an edge, making my own lack of reciprocation in remembering other people’s names even more obvious. Apparently, however, the research is conflicting on this and one study finds more common names are actually easier to bring to mind.

So how can you counter this embarrassing deficiency? There’s a hint in the name/occupation connection— that is, if you can find something, particularly something humorous or vivid that links a person to their name, you’re more likely to recall it. Of course, proceed with caution on this to avoid embarrassment.

Repetition also works: if you repeat someone’s name back after you are introduced and try to use it at least once in conversation, that, too, can help fix it in mind.

My own name recall deficiency is so bad that I thought perhaps I had trouble with faces, too— and that this was what made me particularly weak. However, after taking this online test, I discovered that I performed slightly above average, so I think the problem may be one of comparison.

I have both an unusual name and unusual looks—I’m short with long, curly red hair. This probably makes it easier for others to remember me— but often leaves me at an even greater disadvantage when I can’t remember them. It’s hard not to take it personally when someone seems not to remember you, but fortunately it usually reflects a memory flaw, not one of personality or manners.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.