Ivory Towers: I'll never forget what's-his-name

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The Independent Culture
THAT chap on the TV. I'd know him anywhere. Wears glasses, nice smile, funny upper lip. He's the Prime Minister, isn't he? John something.

According to a recent paper, Retrieval of proper names: Testing the models, by Nicola Stanhope and Gillian Cohen (British Journal of Psychology, 1993, pp 51-65), such a process of recognition is very common: 'There is . . . empirical evidence that familiarity judgements, retrieval of semantic information and retrieval of proper names constitute separate stages or component processes in a person recognition system.' Research has shown that some of these stages come to us more easily than others: 'The time taken to recognise a famous face as familiar is consistently faster than the time taken to respond to semantic information about the person which is, in turn, faster than the time taken to retrieve the name.'

The current paper aimed to test two competing theories of why names are hard to remember. According to the 1986 Bruce & Young model of person recognition, seeing a known face activates a stored Face Recognition Unit (FRU) which in turn activates a person identity node (PIN) where information is stored. Names are stored at the end of the sequence, and can only be activated via the PIN. In other words, you can't tell that it is John Major, without having gone through the chap-with- funny-lip or he's-the-Prime- Minister-isn't-he stage. There is no direct link from face to name.

The competing theory is the more complex 1992 Burton & Bruce 'Interactive Activation and Competition' (IAC) model, proposed in a paper entitled: I recognise your face but I can't remember your name: A simple explanation? Besides having PINs and FRUs, they have disembodied SIUs, semantic information units. So the face of John Major excites the FRU of John Major, which stimulates the PIN of John Major, which tickles the SIUs of 'British', 'Prime Minister', 'Nice smile' and 'Funny lip'. Each of these may be linked to other PINs too, but taken together, they lead to the SIU of John Major's name.

To test the competing hypotheses, subjects were shown a series of unfamiliar photographs. In the first experiment, they were given both the names and occupations of the faces in the photographs; in the second experiment they were given either the name or the occupation. They were then tested immediately on their ability to recall the information. In the third experiment, however, the recall test was done after a 48-hour interval.

The results confirmed that names are more difficult to remember than jobs. Interestingly, it had previously been shown that giving the hint of a person's initials (For example, JM) helps people remember their names, but initials help most effectively if given in addition to the occupation ('he's the Prime Minister and his initials are JM').

One curious result of the current study was that short- term memory was better for common names than unusual ones, but this effect was reversed after a 48-hour delay.

'It is clear that both the Bruce & Young serial access model and the Burton & Bruce IAC model need some modification if they are to take account of the findings of the present study.'

So we still don't know for sure why names are hard to remember.