I’ll confess. I’m bad with names. I’ll also confess: Using the phrase “I’m bad with names” is a pathetic excuse for failing at a social medium far more important than the internet kind we all seem obsessed with these days. But ask me where that person lives and five years later, I can recall the street and everyone I know who lives on that street. What’s with this? It’s an important issue as remembering people’s names is a must-have skill if you are a person who manages a business.

Why we can remember all sorts of unimportant things about people we meet, but not their names

Here are four reasons (and before I forget, thanks to TheAtlantic.com):

1. The next-in-line effect

As explained by Esther Inglis-Arkell on the website i09, when encountering a group of new people, we try to simultaneously greet the person being introduced while anticipating the next person. According to research (the scientific kind and the kind we’ve experienced after learning this), it is far harder to process two introductions simultaneously than it is to chew gum and walk a straight line at the same time.

2. You’re just not interested

Admit it. You’re a snob. There’s a much better group of people to meet over there on the other side of the room than these losers. Motivation and level of interest can influence how well you remember a person’s name. (And guess what, this group of losers you are blowing off have control of a huge contract you’ll never be invited to bid on. Who’s the loser now?)

3. A failure of working memory

Memory comes in two flavors: Long-term and short-term. Know how you can remember a hotel room number until you check out, and then forget it—even forget the name of the hotel or what city you were in? That’s short term memory. Once you don’t need the information, it fades away.

“Information like a name needs to be transferred to a different brain system that creates long-term memories that persist over time,” according to Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University.

4. Names have lost their relevance

As we’ve explored before, remembering names was much easier in the Middle Ages when the concept of one having a last name (or surname) was just being developed. Names then were commonly based on a person’s occupation, hometown or something they were known for: John the baker, Sam the carpenter, Ivan the terrible, William the conquerer, etc. But as professions have evolved from the simple, such as carpenter or miller, to the more complex, such as flight attendant or software analyst, the whole name-connected-to-career thing has come unglued.

Again, according to Paul Reber, human memory is very good at things like faces and factual information that connect well to other information you already know. After the Middle Ages, a person’s name started to become both completely arbitrary and now names neither connect the person to what you already know nor something about them that stands out as unusual. (Except, as we described in that earlier post, when a person’s name is an aptronym, a term that refers to a name that uniquely fits the person, like Amy Freeze the meteorologist.)

Need help remembering names?

Visit our earlier post, “How to Remember a Customer’s Name.”

Illustration: From a photo via ThinkStock.com

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