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.