Bad News for People Who Can’t Remember Names

A good friend of one of my good friends forgets me every time I see him. We’ve hung out four times in the past several years, and on each occasion, he’s greeted me with a beaming smile and an outstretched hand. “Hi, I’m Jerkface,” he says. (Jerkface’s name has been changed to avoid unnecessary shaming.)

“Hi, yes,” I reply. “We saw each other at that bar that one time, and at our friend’s apartment before that.”

“Oh, yeahhh,” he says, clearly not remembering.

Nothing knocks you down a notch like learning you don’t make much of an impression. Nevertheless, people forget each other all the time. It happens between the newest acquaintances and the oldest friends: Names, faces, occupations, birthdays, invitations, and promises evaporate so often that entire adult interactions can revolve around avoiding the awkwardness of a blank stare.

I’ve been a Jerkface myself plenty of times. At a wedding this summer, I made it halfway through a conversation with a woman without realizing I already knew her. Devin Ray has been a Jerkface, too. Ray is a psychologist who admits his head is usually “in the clouds.” “I’ve swapped some strange names with people’s names,” he says. Recently, Ray became curious about the lasting effects of such blunders, and led a largely unprecedented investigation into what being forgotten does to people. Fair warning, his findings are going to make you sorry you’re not better at remembering things.

With colleagues at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, Ray ran four experiments that measured how people interpret forgetting. One had 56 students keep online “diaries” at the beginning of the school year, asking them to detail every single time they were forgotten. Their entries, recorded daily for two weeks, captured all the ways forgetting can play out. For the most part, it was loose acquaintances forgetting basic facts—names, class years, majors—or experiences they’d shared with the diary keepers, like attending the same party. But there were also broken commitments (“My friend was supposed to meet me at the library today”), dramatic exclusions (“My friends organized a night out, and forgot to ask me”), and confusions of one person for someone else.  

Ray and his team were surprised by how consistently damaging all this forgetting was. Statistical analyses of both the students’ reports and a follow-up, controlled study found that people who were forgotten felt less close to those who forgot them, regardless of whether the forgetter was a family member or someone they just met. Mercifully, the people who were forgotten were almost always eager to excuse the memory lapses: The university students, for instance, would explain away potential slights with comments like “she already met too many people in the last couple of days.” But such rationalizations only softened the blow in the end. “The good news is that this happens a lot, and people will try their best to be forgiving,” Ray says. “The bad news is that, on average, they can’t quite get there.”

Jerkfaces can take heart knowing that no one’s life is going to crumble if you fail to remember their favorite song or what they ate for lunch. Being forgotten had little to no bearing on people’s self-esteem and other measures of self-comportment, and even the most pronounced changes were matters of fractions of scale points. Moreover, as King points out, research has shown that people generally consider lives fairly meaningful to begin with.

But Ray’s minute findings leave open the possibility of a cumulative impact. Like other small stressors, being forgotten could take a toll on people who deal with it often—especially if it coincides with other elements of discrimination. Ray’s earliest inspiration for looking into forgetting, he says, came from witnessing a professor constantly mix up the names of two of his “non-white” graduate students. (Ray refrained from providing identifying details in his account.)

“Your relationship with your supervisor is a big deal. You work with that person for years,” Ray says. “[Being forgotten] is an important and layered experience. It can lead to these ‘funny, haha, I forgot your name at a party’ stories. But it can also lead to more serious, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe you did that’ crushing moments.”

There’s a lot left for researchers to unpack. Charles Stone, a psychologist at the City University of New York who specializes in memory, ran through a laundry list of nuances and variables likely to shape how being forgotten is received, from how pertinent the thing forgotten is to the relationship between the forgetter and forgettee, to the power dynamic between the two. He also notes that the incongruity between remembering and forgetting could be what’s damaging, rather than forgetting itself: If two people realize they both forgot each other’s names, there might be no bad vibes, or the pair could conceivably even feel closer.

Ray’s work reveals nothing of forgetters’ actual feelings or intentions, only how they’re perceived. It’s reassuring that participants tried to give forgetters the benefit of the doubt. “Forgetting is the rule, not the exception,” Stone says. “We forget most of our past. Think about how many days, how many hours, how many minutes everyone’s been on this planet.” The big question for scientists isn’t why people forget, he says, but why people remember certain things.

The scope of forgetting can make even the most boring social interactions poignant. There’s something miraculous about any two people’s lives intersecting among all those days, hours, and minutes, whether they bump into each other on campus or sit down for coffee. Sharing a moment with someone is a reminder that we’re all here, that connection is possible. At least, until Jerkface forgets it.

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