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Why women remember faces better than men

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Why women remember faces better than men revealed in new study

Women are better than men at remembering new names and faces, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

Although previous research has shown this to be true, this newest study delves deeper, suggesting that the reason women remember these things so well is because they tend to absorb more details about a new person’s face – from their eyes, mouth, nose and everything in between.

Interestingly, women do this unconsciously. They’re not even aware of what they’re doing, yet they take in all that facial information and store it in their brains until they see the new person again and need to recall who that person is.

To conduct the study, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario used eye-tracking technology, which essentially consisted of a helmet with two small cameras that monitored the eye movements of the study’s male and female participants.

While wearing these helmets in one experiment, the participants were “introduced” to 120 faces with names over a period of four days. On each day, the participants were shown three different sets of 10 photographs, some of which were repeats from the day before. They were then asked if they had ever “met” the person before – and, if they answered yes, they were asked to name that person.

In a second, but shorter experiment, which lasted only one day, the participants were “introduced” to a face on screen for just five seconds at a time. And, once again – regardless of how brief the “introduction” was – the women were better than the male participants at recognizing the faces they’d seen before and remembering what their names were.

The eye-tracking technology also found that the women spent more time looking at different facial features than the men, as the women moved their eyes around more; thus, they noticed more features about a new person’s face than the men did.

However, study author Jennifer Heisz points out that the women weren’t that much better than men in recognizing new faces and names.

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"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," explained Heisz. But she also added that there's a social price to not remembering a person you've met before, pointing out how that small difference can result in many more socially awkward situations for men than women.

Although the study didn’t look into the reason why women unconsciously absorb more details about a new person’s face, Heisz has some 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 said.

Another possibility is that women process visual information differently than men. According to Heisz, women tend to have a better episodic memory, so they can recall specific visual images and scenes from the past. And remembering a face could be one more example of that.

Regardless of your gender, Heisz says you can teach yourself how to remember names and faces, something she is currently helping people learn to do with a training program she’s testing. Heisz hopes the training program will one day be able to teach older adults with memory problems how to better remember faces, which could help reduce the social isolation and loneliness that many of the elderly experience.

Meanwhile, Heisz offers this tip for helping you remember a new face:

During the first few seconds of meeting someone new, try to take in the whole face by not just looking into the person’s eyes, but also noticing other parts of their face, such as the curve of the nose, their cheekbones, and the arch of the eyebrows.

But, Heisz warns, you must be subtle when doing this.

“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,” explained Heisz. “It’s not surprising that some of us struggle with this.”

SOURCE: Psychological Science, “Females Scan More Than Males A Potential Mechanism for Sex Differences in Recognition Memory”, May 21, 2013; doi: 10.1177/0956797612468281