A mystery solved?

It happens to me quite often. When I encounter people, especially in a location other than where I usually meet them, I often do not recognize them and cannot place them or recall their names. The problem is that those people seem to recognize me at once and smile and wave and even come up and talk to me. My strategy in such situations is to also smile and wave and to engage in small talk, desperately hoping that my memory will kick into gear and rescue me or that the conversation will elicit some clues as to their identity.

The puzzle was why they could recognize me so much more easily than I could recognize them. Could it be that I am exceptionally poor at recognizing people, well below the average? A new study purports to explain what is going on. It appears that ugly people are easier to remember than attractive people.

Previous studies of this question have apparently yielded contradictory results and the new study tried to explain the discrepancies by eliminating the confounding variable of mere distinctiveness.

The researchers argue that the variance of these previous studies might be explained by their failure to account for the fact that distinctive faces (composed of things like huge lips, beady eyes, or other irregular features), regardless of attractiveness, are remembered better than more normal mugs. In this latest study, they compiled a set of faces that was designed to control for the variable. Every face, attractive or not, was matched in distinctiveness.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that people had the most accurate memories of the unattractive faces, and that this was a stronger predictor of memory than distinctiveness. “Until now we assumed that it was generally easier to memorize faces, which are being perceived as attractive – just because we prefer looking at beautiful faces,“ Dr. Holger Wiese, one of the authors, surmised in a statement.

So there you have it. If you want to be remembered easily by others, be unattractive and distinctive. For some of us, that comes easily.


  1. says

    My strategy in such situations is to also smile and wave and to engage in small talk, desperately hoping that my memory will kick into gear and rescue me or that the conversation will elicit some clues as to their identity.

    I’ve had a number of conversations with acquaintances in the last year, in which we have admitted ruefully that we generally have no idea who we’re talking to, and really don’t give a shit. Much of conversation is a matter of treading water until we remember, or appear to remember, and are prepared to say “my memory for places sucks; I remember your face but I don’t recall what we talked about” (which is a great way of saying absolutely nothing at all) It’s made me realize that I’m not alone – nobody knows or cares! I suppose some people remember meeting famous people or whatever, because they’re memorable for being memorable.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ah, so I’m easily forgettable because of my dazzling good looks. Best news I’ve had all day!

  3. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    I have much the same problem and in my professional lives, first as a magazine writer and editor and later as an educator, this deficiency has caused me no end of grief (I’m notorious for taking half a year to recognize my own students) but in your case I have to wonder if your ethnicity comes into play. You are the only Sri Lankan I’ve ever met (and only the third person from South Asia) so my mind doesn’t have to sift through many identities before I hit on Mano Singham.

    I’m curious if this recognition factor applies equally when you go back home to visit your parent or other relatives?

    (As a side note, my ex was the perfect politician, able to enter a room with 100 people and exit at the end of the event able to not only name everyone at the affair, but also to deliver a brief biography that she could recall at will.)

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  4. says

    It’s easier to remember someone with distinct features, while those with “perfect” faces are often forgettable. Whose faces are more memorable – Jennifer Aniston, or Scarlett Johansson? Brad Pitt, or John Cusack?

    Myself, though, I can’t remember faces at all unless I’ve interacted with them socially for at least a year. I’d make a lousy witness if I were ever called on in court.

  5. ericjuve says

    When I can’t remember someones name,as difficult as it is, I usually simply ask to be forgiven and ask for their name. I have the advantage of age and I hope they will attribute my forgetfulness to that.

  6. davidbrown says

    My favourite story along this line I’m stealing from Clifton Fadiman’s The Little, Brown Book of Anectdotes (which is a big, green, book, but that’s another story.)

    The English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was at a swank hotel in London when he was approached by a well-dressed, clearly upper-class lady, who seemed to know him. He couldn’t remember her name, but he seemed to remember that she had a brother. So, trying to make small talk he said to her, “And how is your brother, Ma’am? Is he still in the same job?”
    Somewhat surprised, she replied, “Yes, he’s fine, and he’s still King.”

  7. Mano Singham says


    I have so many distinguishing features that I am not a good test case for investigating this.

  8. permanentwiltingpoint says

    That study seems to miss other factors, like that talking with someone is not the same as just looking at a picture of them. Maybe you’re just more interesting than most people you meet?

  9. Matt G says

    Perhaps we have a very narrow view of what is attractive. I’ve seen clothing catalogues in which I can barely tell the models apart.

  10. says

    This happens to my wife and I all the time…not because we’re unattractive, we’re just misanthropes. Anyway, we have a protocol to deal with it. If we run into someone who seems to know me, I say “hi” and my wife immediately puts out her hand and says a”Hi, I’m Joan”. Etiquette then demands that they respond with “Hi, I’m xxxxx” . I do the same when she’s approached. Works like a charm and we don’t have to bother remembering the names of people we really don’t give a damn about.

  11. Lofty says

    I have a terrible time remebering peoples names when I have only heard their name (i.e they’re introduced or they’ve introduced themselves). If I have written down their name, or even mentally ‘written” their names down I can do much better. Looks of the person don’t seem to affect my memory but the difference between my audio memory and my visual memory is profound. It also works with things like phone numbers, I can remember better when I visualise the actions of pressing the keypad, as well as breaking it down into meaninful blocks. Memory works in mysterious ways…

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