June 6, 2013 at 9:12 AM ET
So you're at a party, and you see a new face in the room, someone you haven't met yet. You introduce yourself, and it turns out -- you totally have met this person before. (Maybe even a couple times before.)
You are probably feeling very awkward. And you're also probably a guy.
A new study shows that women are better than men at remembering new names and faces, something past research has also shown. But this new paper, just published in the journal Psychological Science, also suggests the reason why women are so good at it: In the first few moments that we meet someone, we tend to take in more details about the new face in front of us. We study the eyes, the nose, the cheekbones, the mouth -- without even knowing we're doing it -- and then neatly file that information away for our brains to retrieve next time we come across the new person.
To figure this out, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, used eye-tracking technology -- basically, a helmet with two small cameras that monitor where a person's eyes are moving. In one experiment, participants put one of these on, and were “introduced” to 120 faces, including names, over four days. Each day they saw three different sets of 10 photographs – often repeats from the day before – and they were asked whether they’d “met” the person before, and, if so, what that person’s name was. A second experiment was similar but shorter, done over just one day. Each face was on screen for five seconds at a time.
Every time, the women were better than the men at recognizing the faces they’d seen before and remembering the names. The eye-trackers showed that the women spent more time looking at different facial features than the men, moving their eyes around more and noticing more about this new person’s many features than men tend to.
To be fair, the numbers show women aren't much better than men at recognizing new faces. Jennifer Heisz, author of the new paper, dumbs down the figures for us thusly: "Let's say you just were introduced to 10 new people. On average women would recognize seven faces, whereas men would only recognize five or six faces." So, not a huge difference. But Heisz points out that there's a social cost to not remembering a person you've met before, and that that small difference translates into many, many more socially awkward situations for men than women.
This study didn’t examine the reasons why women might unconsciously take in more information from a new face, but Heisz has a few theories. “Our eye movements are really linked with our attention, so it could be related to women paying more attention to being more socially engaged with people,” she explains. Or, it could be that women process visual information differently than men. And in general, Heisz explains, women tend to be better at what researchers call episodic memory – recalling specific scenes from your own past. Remembering a face could be one more example of that.
If you're a dude -- or a lady who is breaking all kinds of gender barriers by being equally terrible at remembering faces! -- there is hope. Heisz says you can teach yourself to remember faces like the gals do it. In fact, she's currently testing a training program, hoping to one day be able to teach older adults struggling with memory problems to better remember faces, something that could potentially cut down on the seniors' social isolation and loneliness.
Next time you meet someone, in the first few seconds of the introduction, try to take in the whole face – look the person in the eye, of course, but also notice things like the curve of the nose, the arch of the eyebrows. (But be subtle about it and move your eyes around quickly; don't stare too long at one particular feature or you risk weirding out your new potential friend! Remember, people who do this naturally also do this unconsciously.)
“There’s so much going on when you are first meeting someone, right? You have to learn their face – and this is a really complex thing. I mean, you have two eyes, a nose and a mouth – but so does everyone! And trying to distinguish those really subtle differences – that’s a really difficult thing,” says Heisz, who will be an assistant professor in kinesiology at McMaster starting in July. “It’s not surprising that some of us struggle with this.”