QuestionAre some people just forgettable?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Today we wonder what makes some people more memorable than others.
If you’re a guy on Tinder, you’ve only got a 14% chance to get swiped right by a woman. And, according to Psychology Today, “some [dating ‘educators’ and pickup artists] marketers are actually making upwards of 10-20 million dollars a year training millions of men—more than are current patients in any individual tradition of mainstream therapy.” By now, we’ve all heard the maxim, “you never forget a pretty face.” In our culture of insta-everything, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to make a lasting first impression.
Are some people forever lost in the crowd? We asked psychologists, confidence coaches, and brand strategists to help us determine what makes some people more forgettable and, conversely, what makes others more memorable?
Anthony C. Little, Ph.D.
Reader at the School of Natural Sciences, Psychology, University of Stirling, Scotland, co-founder of A Little Lab
Among the best studied factors in face recognition is averageness, and its converse distinctiveness. The averageness of a face is related to how closely it resembles the majority of other faces within a population. Average faces are not distinctive and non-average faces have more extreme characteristics. For example, a person would have a non-average, or distinctive, nose if their nose was much larger or much smaller than average. It is probably not surprising to learn that people with distinctive faces are more memorable, but it is interesting to think about why.
Average faces look like they could be one of lots of different people and so, when we see average faces, it is difficult to be sure that really is the right person. People with more extreme faces, however, won’t look like anyone else and so be easier to search for in our memories.
Beauty impacts on memory too, with both the most attractive and most unattractive being the more easily recognizable. The first finding may reflect that we are very motivated to remember beautiful people; they can also be very striking and so different from the norm. The effect for low attractiveness may relate to the effects of distinctiveness too: distinctiveness and unusualness, especially very extreme face features, are usually unattractive.
Whether we remember someone depends not just on their traits but also on our own. In studies of face recognition there are well known effects in which people are best at remembering the faces of people that are similar to themselves and worse at remembering faces of people who are different. For example, research has shown an “other-race” effect in which people are worse at remembering the faces of people of races different from their own. In the same way, “other-age” and “other-sex” effects also suggest that we are best at remembering those faces that belong to our own social groups. These effects appear to be based on experience because the other-race effect gets weaker the more contact someone has with other races.
Following this research, a person with facial features of average proportion, who is of average attractiveness, and of a different race, sex, and age as yourself is likely to be the most forgettable. While being forgettable is considered a negative by many, this may be a boon if this person commits a crime and you are called on to identify them in a police line-up.
How faces play into witness identification and wrongful conviction
THE APPROXIMATE NUMBER of people you will meet in your lifetime (if you live to an average age of 78.3).
THE NUMBER OF WITNESS IDENTIFICATIONS that take place each year in the United States.
THE NUMBER OF MILLISECONDS it takes for people to register a human face is present in a scene
THE PERCENT OF WITNESS IDENTIFICATIONS that are estimated to be incorrect.
THE PERCENT OF WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS that are later overturned due to witness misidentification.
Personal branding coach and brand strategist, focusing on female entrepreneurs, founder of Jeff Carter Personal Branding
It’s a fact. Many people are very forgettable. For some, it’s intentional. They prefer to stay in the shadows and not be seen. For others, they struggle to get noticed (and remembered) on a daily basis, to little or no avail. Unfortunately, many times it’s the extroverts that get remembered, since they’re the ones making a scene at the meeting or being the “loud one” at the party. That’s not to say an introvert can’t make an impression either.
Apart from the obvious external attributes that can make someone hard to forget—hair, clothes, facial features, etc.—it’s also possible to be memorable for your internal qualities as well, specifically your personality. When you think about it, your personality is the one key ingredient that no one else can copy. They can try, but you are the only you. That’s exactly where something like personal branding comes into play. In fact, being memorable is at the very heart of the branding process.
In my business, personal branding is approached as an inside/out process, so you always start by addressing the individual’s inside: their personality, their mindset, their strengths and weaknesses. What makes them unique? What makes them memorable? Once we have a clear understanding of those answers, we’re then able to translate that into an outwardly visual identity that’s communicated constantly and consistently, each and every day. Then and only then can you start to become memorable in the hearts and minds of others. So yes, we are all unique in our own way. But the question is, do you want to become unforgettable? If so, the answer is within you to discover.
Prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” is a cognitive disorder affecting facial recognition, where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while the other aspects of visual processing, called “object discrimination,” and intellectual functioning remain intact.
Joann M. Montepare, Ph.D.
Director, Rosemary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies, Professor of Psychology, Lasell College, MA
I would encourage you to consider that what stands out as memorable may also be influenced by one’s own perspective as well as the context—and not simply by the attributes of the “person perceived.” Thus, if you are a socially anxious person, you may find a person with an outgoing style of interaction (e.g., loud, talkative) more noticeable and, therefore, memorable than other individuals. If a person has unique characteristics in comparison to other individuals in a particular context (e.g. red hair, short haircut, sad expression, significantly taller or shorter statures, significantly lighter or darker features, etc.), that person may also be more salient than others who tend to “look alike.”
Thus, who is memorable versus forgettable may be tied very much to what aligns with our individual social goals, motivations, and experiences as much as to other peoples’ particular features, attributes, or mannerisms.
How learning from your parents impacts your preference for faces of the opposite sex
— WOMEN BORN TO OLDER PARENTS (over 30) were less impressed by youth and more attracted to age cues in male faces than women with younger parents (under 30).
— FOR MEN, PREFERENCES FOR FEMALE FACES were influenced by their mother's age and not their father's age, but only for long-term relationships.
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Associate professor. Director of Cognitive Science Program, Lehigh University, PA
In the phenomenon of change blindness, people fail to notice that one person has been replaced by another, suggesting that under certain conditions people are indeed highly forgettable. In particular, outgroup members are not individuated as much as ingroup members, and so are more forgettable. Memory techniques such as focusing on distinctive features of faces and playing with them through mental imagery may be used to counteract this bias.
However, the memorability of faces in general is not just a matter of distinctiveness or oddity. Averaging many faces together through morphing technology erases distinctive features to produce beautiful if rather bland visages. These faces will naturally make a stronger first impression than the ordinary undistinguished ones from which they are derived. Thus, a balance between typicality (easy on the eye) and distinctiveness (easy to individuate) may be optimal for memorability.
Ten films where face
recognition takes center stage
THE TERMINATOR (1984)
TOTAL RECALL (1990)
DEMOLITION MAN (1993)
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000)
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
50 FIRST DATES (2004)
FACES IN THE CROWD (2011)
Confidence and communication coach at People Skills Decoded
Above all, I find that we tend to remember well people who are unique, especially in a positive way. People who are forgettable on the other hand tend to be very generic, showing little that would make them stand out. So, their image blends easily in our minds with the images of the hundreds of other people we've met. This is often not because they are generic as people, though. It is because they act in a way that is construed as generic. They repress the unique traits and mannerisms that would make them stand out, usually because they have some fear about standing out or upsetting others. They shy away from being themselves, and thus they end up being bland and forgettable.
Ph.D. student in Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
Our research has focused on what makes faces more or less memorable, and in fact how we can modify faces automatically to change their memorability in a predictable way. Our study of a variety of attributes related to face memorability reveals that more kindness and trustworthiness portrayed on a face, but also some atypicality make it easier to remember. While this explains some part of what makes a face memorable, a large part of the explanation depends on subtle characteristics that are difficult to explain using language but can be picked up by machine learning algorithms.
ILLUSTRATION: Yulia Goldman