People Forget Names Because They Don't Care

Kansas State Unversity professor says remembering is a matter of motivation

ByABC News
June 21, 2012, 4:24 PM

June 22, 2012— -- You're at a party and you're introduced to someone new. The two of you start talking, and in the midst of conversation, you get distracted. You start to think about what you want for dinner, or what your plans are for the weekend. Then, you realize you have completely blanked on your acquaintance's name.

Sound familiar?

Now, blaming it on having a bad memory may no longer be a valid excuse.

According to Richard Harris, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, it's not your brain's ability that dictates how well you remember people's names, but how motivated you are to learn them.

"Just about everybody has a good memory for something because people are interested in different things," said Harris. "But not everybody is motivated to work very hard at the same things."

"A lot of people have the idea that remembering names of people is just hard and so they haven't really worked at it very much," he said. "I think it's something that is not terribly hard but it does require a bit of working at.

"It doesn't just come if you don't work at it at all."

As a professor, Harris said he tries to memorize the names of each of his approximately 50 students in the first few weeks of the semester.

As a trick to remember, he'll call out the names of everyone in class for the first week. While it may seem like a waste of time, he tells his students it's the only way he'll learn their names.

"When I call the names, I go through and try to think about the names, and what is distinctive about this person," he said. "And I'll learn a few names each time. I find it doesn't take a lot of work doing that."

"People are often kind of impressed at that," Harris said. "I tell them, 'It really isn't that hard, I haven't done anything that you couldn't do.'"

Harris said remembering names comes not only from motivation, but also from confidence.

"Some people don't have much confidence in their own memories or own social skills, they say 'I'm not good with people, I'm not good with learning names.' It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Harris suggests using a person's name in conversation to help remember.

"People are embarrassed often; they think they can't ask again," said Harris.

But thanks to Harris, people may now have to admit it's because they weren't paying close enough attention.