During the holiday season, you’re likely to be a bit more social than usual. Between holiday parties with friends or at work, school, community groups and what-not, you’re sure to meet a lot of new people…and forget a lot of new names. Have you ever wondered why we forget names? We’re getting to the bottom of this mystery today.
Before you start feeling down in the dumps about inevitably forgetting someone’s name and beating yourself up over your lack of short-term memory, know this: Everyone has this problem at some point! The reasons why we forget names is as innate as breathing and blinking. It’s going to happen and it’s OK.
Now that we’ve taken some of the anxiety out of meeting new people, let’s talk about why we forget names.
Forgetting someone’s name a few seconds after you learned it is actually part of the way we are hard-wired. You’re less likely to forget someone’s face than their name because, as part of the animal kingdom, our brains are trained to remember the look of someone rather than what they are called. Many social animals do this to know friend from foe.
But seriously, someone just said their name and you can’t remember it? Something must be wrong, right? No, probably not. Names are arbitrary in that they don’t have much meaning you can associate them with other than that stranger you just met. As opposed to other words such as banana, jump and green, names don’t usually conjure up a vivid and tangible image to put with them.
Additionally, names don’t have synonyms. If you can’t remember Sarah’s name, it’s not OK to call her Susan instead. That’s different than not remembering the word vessel and being able to say pitcher, cup, glass, container or many other words that can replace it in the English language. The specificity of a name makes it harder to remember. This is even truer when you believe a person’s name doesn’t match their look or personality.
Sometimes we forget names because our brains just work too fast. We’re processing words at around two to three per second. We’re bound to miss a few, especially those that aren’t the most important. We can still gather meaning from the context of what is being said without catching and remembering every word. Plus, if you’re waiting to introduce yourself once the other person is done speaking, you may miss their name in anticipation of saying your own.
Also, there are times when names probably aren’t that important to us, like meeting someone in passing that we believe we’ll never see again. Unfortunately if and when you do see them again, it can be a bit embarrassing and awkward. But again, it happens to the best of us.
Remembering a complete stranger’s name usually takes repetition because it has to be transferred from your short-term working memory to a different section of your brain that stores long-term memories. Short-term memories are often cycled out quickly to make room for new, more important stuff.
So, there you have it. You’re not alone in the name game. The reason why we forget names is a complex yet natural psychological occurrence. If you really want to try to remember someone’s name, repeat it several times to yourself or out loud when speaking to them. If you still can’t remember, try to introduce someone else and hope the person will say their name again. And if you have to ask someone to repeat their name, you’re not a bad person, just human.
Sources: Bustle, Psychology Today and The Atlantic