Monday, 28 January 2013

Boost your memory for names by making a game of it

People often apologise for being useless at remembering names, as if it's some idiosyncratic quirk of theirs. In fact, with the exception of memory champs and their fancy mnemonics, plenty of research shows that most of the rest of us are especially hopeless at remembering people's names, as compared with other items of information, such as professions.

Names are arbitrary tags, and so we struggle to embed them in a web of meaningful connections. Research has even shown that people are poorer at remembering names than occupations when the same word is used (e.g. "Mr Carpenter" vs. "a carpenter"), presumably because treating the word as a name robs it of its wider semantic associations.

But that's not to say we can't do a better job of remembering names if we make more effort. And a new study suggests a way to untap this potential - turn the task of memorising names into a game.

Say you're off to a business lunch. You and a colleague could allocate points for any names you remember successfully afterwards. For example, you get 10 points for the boss, 5 points for her assistant, and a point a piece for the remainder of her team. The new research suggests that incentivising the memory challenge in this way will give you a far better chance of recalling the most important names. This could prove handy, helping you make a good impression in future meetings.

Sara Festini and her colleagues put this idea to the test in a study with 32 undergrads. Participants were presented with pictures of 28 male faces, each paired either with a name (e.g. "Mr Fisher") or an occupation ("fisher"). Each face-word pair had a designated point value - either 10 points or 1 point and participants had two chances to study the series of faces and their attached information. A 3-minute filler task came next before the memory test began. The participants were shown the faces and had to recall the relevant name or occupation.

Overall, participants were much better at recalling occupations than names (47 per cent correct vs. 27 per cent), consistent with past research. But crucially, participants did a superior job at remembering high value (10-point) names, than low value names (33 per cent vs. 21 per cent). It's as if the extra incentive prompted participants to go to greater lengths to process the names and encode them more deeply. In contrast, point values made no difference to success with recalling occupations, perhaps because they had already been embedded automatically into a web of semantic connections.

When the experiment was repeated with nonsense words used for names and occupations (e.g. "monid" for occupation and "Mr Monid" for a name), performance was equivalent for names and occupations because the occupations had now been stripped of their automatic meaningful connotations. This time, higher point values improved people's memory for both names and occupations, presumably because both were now able to benefit from the effort of extra processing and encoding.

For a third and final experiment, faces were again paired with standard names and occupations (carpenter / Mr Carpenter) but this time participants were required to rehearse the information for each face out loud, eight times. This was intended to interfere with any attempts at deeper processing, to see if that was the mechanism by which higher points led to better memory. And that's exactly what happened, with high-value names now recalled no more effectively than low-value names.

The researchers said their study revealed "a method to improve proper name learning", although they were cautious about how it might be applied in real life. "Future experiments are needed to determine if deliberately assigning high value to important names in everyday situations similarly boosts name recall as it did in a controlled lab setting."

But their main message remains upbeat: "Although names are difficult to remember," the researchers concluded, "actions can be taken to facilitate their recall."
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ResearchBlogging.orgFestini, S., Hartley, A., Tauber, S., and Rhodes, M. (2012). Assigned value improves memory of proper names. Memory, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2012.747613

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 comments:

  1. This is interesting as I'm almost always told "I'm rubbish at remember names" when I first meet people. After reading 'How to Win Friends and Influence People" I tasked myself with improving my own memory of names. Its not necessarily about making a game of it so much as finding a way to reinforce it.
    I'm quite good at remembering names now because I have a few simple rules:
    1. Repeat their name after they've said it to you.
    2. Make an association in my head with it, anything at all
    3. Try to introduce them to someone else in the next fifteen minutes or at least repeat their name in conversation as soon as possible. eg. "I just met So-and-so over there."

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  2. This article is interesting. Most people meet new faces each day, however the chances of remembering their names are slim to none. for example i work at a gas station, we always have new people come in each time i work. last night i met a police officer, a firefighter, and some lady that works with animals. the only name i remember is the police officers. i believe this is because he was the only one in uniform. i payed more attention to his name probably because he stayed longer than the rest and he had a name tag pinned to his uniform. i think that remembering names could be more likely if we took the time to think and put the name with the face. but on a day to day basis, that is not something humans typically do or even stop to think about. i do not believe that you need to put a game together to remember names. i think if you can make a connection between the face, name, and occupation and actually take time to try to repeat the name at least once, you have a good chance of remembering names more.
    -Rachel Hartmann Psy-101 Mr. Harden.

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  3. Lorena Barbosa7:55 pm

    I really like the topic of this article, because it is a problem that we face everyday.I catch myself doing that all the time, and it is frustrating. We are always in a hurry, talking on our phones, texting or trying to get things done that when it comes to meeting a new person we don't give our full attention to that someone and end up forgetting people's names.I don't think that doing games are really helpfull, because they are time taking. Maybe the best thing to do it is to give a little bit of our time to the person we are being introduced to and try to repeat the name a few times during the convrsation to see if that helps.

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  4. Kelsey Necker8:44 pm

    I think this article is very useful. Whenever you start the first day of school, regardless or what age or grade, at least one of you're teachers will use an ice breaker technique. Doing so helps the students learn their classmates names and also gives them a small dose of understanding of who their classmates are. For example: In my Intercultural Communications class, the first day everyone went around and said their name and a word describing themselves that starts with the first letter of their name (Kind Kelsey, Marvelous Megan, etc.). Each individual would hear the persons name before them and would have to repeat those names and words and add on their own. This definitely helped me learn the my classmates names, including my professor. I am a very hands on learner and i love to have fun while doing it. Regardless if it's a song or game, this technique is something i strongly encourage others to use!
    -Kelsey Necker Psy-101 Mitch Harden

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