Turns out names just aren’t that meaningful.
The first thing you do when you meet someone is exchange names. But it never sticks, does it?
Pretty much everyone you ask will say they are good at remembering faces, but terrible at remembering names. Scientific research actually supports this, with one study suggesting that names are among some of the most difficult words to learn.
Another study performed way back in 1986 looked at how names compare to different words. Participants were given fake biographies then asked to recall specific details about what they had read.
Jobs were the most memorable, with 69% being remembered, while 68% of hobbies and 62% of home towns were remembered. On the other end of the scale, only 31% of first names and 30% of surnames were successfully recalled.
Names are essentially meaningless.
The most common theory in psychological research is that names are essentially meaningless. They are mostly arbitrary because names give away very few or no details about who you are, what you look like, or what you do.
If you were the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, your name would be very easy to remember because it's so ingrained into both your appearance and your job. However, being called John or Karen just doesn't have the same effect.
In fact, if we do meet someone whose name has a connection to what they do, or another aspect of their personality, it's entirely surprising. For example, we'd find it weird to meet a meteorologist called Brad Storm, or a neuroscientist called Nicola Brain. The New Scientist called this “nominative determinism” in its Feedback column, and collected some of the best ones.
Some highlights were Eric Hacker the computer security specialist, Jonathan Treat Paine the neurological surgeon, Christ Moneymaker the poker player, and Alex Hogg the pig researcher.
Nicknames are also a lot easier to remember, because there is often some sort of immediate association made between the nickname and the person.
So next time you meet someone new, try and make a connection in your mind between their name and what they look like or another detail about them. Or, you can just ask them again when you inevitably forget. Most of us are in the same boat, after all.