An anecdote about names

by Manfred1 min read30th Oct 201230 comments

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IdentitySelf Improvement
Personal Blog

I've always been bad at names. But this semester, as part of my duties as a physics teacher, I tried to learn the names of 100 students. It went alright - two months later and there are still some I have trouble with. At the start, I was a bit worried. What if I've just read to many books and things, and used up most of my abnormally small allotment of memorized names? Then wasting names on students would be a really bad idea.

But things turned out not to work that way (as might be expected from how big the human brain is, viz people with eidetic memories). I've started remembering peoples' names after just one introduction, sometimes two. And the reasonable culprit just seems to be practice. You practice learning names, you get better at doing so. Before, I made occasional conversational detours if I couldn't remember someone's name. Now, I ask them again, because I'm confident that I'll remember it without tons of further awkwardness. If I'm really having trouble, sometimes I've written down a name with a short description, and that usually cements it. Remembering names isn't the most important social skill I've learned, but it's a surprisingly dramatic one - it makes me feel closer to people, and vice versa. And it only took having to learn the names of 100 people to get started.

The lesson from this is not necessarily just about learning names, though that might be useful to you. The lesson is about how ordinary people get a lot of practice at doing things like remembering names - if you can't do something that someone else can do, practice may be an effective place to start.  What seems like a property of yourself ("bad at names") may turn out to be quite mutable with the kind of practice those other people are doing.

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I've started remembering peoples' names after just one introduction, sometimes two. And the reasonable culprit just seems to be practice. You practice learning names, you get better at doing so. Before, I made occasional conversational detours if I couldn't remember someone's name. Now, I ask them again, and try intentionally to use their name in conversation. If I'm really having trouble, sometimes I've written down a name with a short description, and that usually cements it.

Sure, you could do that. But that's totally lame and practical.

Or you could use spaced repetition!

Spaced repetition for names is basically where you use someone's name every chance you get when you first hear it, and then just drop it into conversation occasionally, and then stop worrying about it. It's quite effective.

Or you could do spaced repetition of an exercise, like matching descriptions and names, but I'm not confident of the usefulness of exercises. The best might be to take and tag pictures of everyone whose name you want to remember. Which, now that I think about it, some people do a lot...

[-][anonymous]8y 6

Spaced repetition for names is basically where you use someone's name every chance you get when you first hear it, and then just drop it into conversation occasionally, and then stop worrying about it. It's quite effective.

Even without saying them aloud, I've found that rehearsing the names of people I've just met in my mind every five or ten minutes kind-of works.

Rehearsing names-with-faces works better for me. It works even better if I can get a list of names (to match to faces) and also easily glance out and see all their faces (to test if I can match them to their name). The last improvement is having a non-embarassing way to refresh myself if, in rehearsing, I find out I've forgotten someone (assigned seats are beautiful - look at seat, see if I can name occupant. If not, check who seat is assigned to)

There was some discussion at our last meetup of building a faces / names anki deck. It has not happened yet.

I think they distribute these before rationality camps.

Didn't help me, but I'm pretty face blind. I had trouble differentiating between the faces in the deck, not just associating them with names.

They did, I found them super effective. TAs and professors also get facebooks (yes, that's where the name came from) of their students, which I would turn into Anki decks. (It works rather well.)

If you are a guy, loose a one night stand by forgetting a girls name. You'll never, ever, ever forget a mildly attractive woman's name again. Ever.

Increase the evolutionary value of a task, and you shall become the tasks Master of the Universe.

In my experience, the majority of people will describe themselves as "bad at names, but good with faces". It's gotten to the point where it's started to annoy me a bit.

Few people are innately good at remembering names, but there are plenty of clever systems for doing so, most of which involve associating the name/person with something you've already committed to memory, or forming a strong visual or emotive cue involving that person which somehow links back to their name.

Ha! I'm good with names and bad with faces. (Seriously, though. I had two friends in High School who, for nearly a year and a half, I thought were the same person, because their names were identical and I never had them in the same class. They weren't even the same race - one was white and one was Asian.)

That seems a bit extreme. Maybe you have that condition that makes it difficult do distinguish faces?

I have tended to associate with distinctive people, and prefer distinctiveness to attractiveness. Entirely possible.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

You must be using the word “friends” more broadly than I would -- I'm not terribly good with faces either¹, but... if I spent a non-trivial amount of time with such people, I would learn to tell them apart from their voices at the very least, and possibly from their body frames, the kinds of things they talk about, their clothing styles, etc.

  1. Well, with strangers' and casual acquaintances' faces -- I get better if I've known someone for a while.

My memory of faces is... compressed. For example, if I'm close to a short white guy with large ears, a small nose and no facial hair, I'll remember his face pretty well - but every time I meet someone matching the same description, I'll remember him as having the first guy's face. So I might not recognize him at all, because I'm comparing his face to a different one, and I certainly won't tell the two apart. Same thing for voices and body shapes, only worse. I can remember particular items of clothing but not generalize to a style. What they talk about is useful, but not instantaneous.

I remember them, but separately - not together. It's most annoying.

Are there any systems for remembering faces?

In college I occasionally mixed up a couple similar looking girls. I ended up marrying one of them. It worked out pretty well for me but I don't think it's a universally applicable heuristic.

So... your system is "if two people look the same, add 'Am I married to this person?' as a differentiating criterion"? Welp, new pickup line.

More like "If I can't keep two people straight, marry one of them. That ought to provide compelling incentives to do so, not to mention ample opportunity for increased familiarity."

Ha! I also went on a date with someone I had mixed up with his roommate, but it went badly. Took me half the date to catch on. I just thought he was more boring than I remembered.

Wow. Did you confess the mixup or what?

Nope, I just hid from him for the rest of summer camp, so he wouldn't try to follow up. I also did not confess: thinking I had the same prof for both my epidemiology classes until Thanksgiving when I found out there were two separate people.

I once was telling my Democratic Rhetoric prof how glad I was I dropped Abstract Algebra and realized mid paragraph I was talking to my Abstract Algebra prof and switched to "because I just don't have time to do it justice and I think I'll be able to make time next year."

[-][anonymous]8y 1

I once was telling my Democratic Rhetoric prof how glad I was I dropped Abstract Algebra and realized mid paragraph I was talking to my Abstract Algebra prof and switched to "because I just don't have time to do it justice and I think I'll be able to make time next year."

Oh my...

At least it wasn't the morning after.

I haven't come up with one. I used to mix up my roommate with a coworker and have brief panicky feelings every now and then when I tried to figure out what I'd done that so pissed off my coworker that she was waiting in my living room. But I was pretty good at remembering that statistically it was my roommate.

Strategies I have used that helped:

  • sending out emails at the beginning of the school year reminding people I'm pretty faceblind and I may not recognize them, esp if they changed their hair. So please introduce yourself when you see me, and, if I'm in a conversation with someone, greet my interlocutor by name
  • teaching my then-bf fingerspelling and having him drift behind people I'm talking to and spell their names to me

These didn't make me better long term,but helped a lot to manage the problem.

Specifically, is there an encoding system one can apply in real time with usable results?

When meeting multiple people at once, I have personally found it useful to mentally alliterate physical features with names. So if I met Susan (below average height), Lisa (above average height), Bob (above average weight), Sam (below average weight) and Angie (high sharp cheek bones and a very tapered face) I might mentally tag them

-Angular Angie

-Buoyant Bob

-Lengthy Lisa

-Short Susan

-Skinny Sam

When possible, I like to look for opposing pairs of features (short v tall etc.) as binaries seem easier to remember. Sometimes picking a descriptor that fits a binary and gives you alliteration forces you to reach for something that would be poor prose (the first choice to describe a tall person wouldn’t be lengthy). Although not perfect by any means, I have found this to substantially increase my pickup of new names and my ability to match the name to the physical person using it.

Heh. I'm good with both. It's linking one to the other that gives me trouble.

Our evolutionary adaptation is to find faces pretty quickly, but remembering a name have don't the same strength in group formation. The extra effort to remember names could signal some kind of alliance, witch explain why I could remember some names, but remember much more faces.