Anyone remember what Chandler's job was in the sitcom Friends?

It can be so embarrassing when you bump into a person you haven’t seen for years – you recognise them, you even remember lots of things about them like their job…but you just can’t quite recall their name.

This phenomenon has been replicated in the psychology lab countless times and explained by that staple of the undergraduate psychology diet – the Bruce and Young serial model of face recognition – which states names are stored separately from other knowledge about a person, and that names can only be retrieved after enough of that knowledge has been accessed.

But now Lesley Calderwood and Mike Burton have challenged this account. They’ve shown that for people who we’re extremely familiar with, we’re actually quicker to recall their name than other information about them.

They recruited 24 undergrads who confessed to being hard-core fans of the American sitcom Friends, watching approximately two hours of it per week. Participants first read aloud the names and occupations of the six main characters. Next they were shown the faces of the characters and in one condition had to name them as fast as possible, and in another they had to state their occupation as quick as they could. They were faster at naming the characters than stating their occupation.

The researchers also repeated this observation with children, using pictures of the children’s classmates. The children were quicker to name their classmates than say which maths group they were in.

“One reason why the name disadvantage may be reversed for highly familiar faces is the frequency with which their names are retrieved in our day-to-day lives”, Calderwood and Burton explained. This also applies to programmes we watch regularly. “We are much more likely to have heard the [characters’] names Ross and Rachel than to have heard about their jobs over the years of watching Friends”, they said.

The finding supports parallel models of face processing which don’t propose information about a person is accessed in a sequential manner.

Oh and in case you were wondering, Chandler was apparently in advertising.

Calderwood, L. & Burton, A.M. (2006). Children and adults recall the names of highly familiar faces faster than semantic information. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 441-454.
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