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"He looks like a 'Bob'" is true

05/15/2007

Researchers at Miami University think they know why you can remember some peoples' names but not others'. They've shown quantitatively that certain names are associated with certain facial features.

For example, when people hear the name "Bob" they have in mind a larger, round face than when they hear a name such as "Tim" or "Andy." Robin Thomas, associate professor of psychology, and colleagues not only show that this link exists, but they also show that if people try to learn face-name pairs that go against their expectations, they have a hard time doing it.

Melissa Lea, visiting assistant professor at Union College, N.Y. and a former graduate student, and Aaron Bell and Nathan Lamkin, former undergraduates with research scholarships, worked with Thomas through various steps of establishing the face-name association. Their article on this research has been accepted for publication in the Psychonomic Society's journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Mixed gender groups of college students participated in the study, which used men's names that appear with equal frequency among that age group. Only white male faces with the same hairstyle were used, as gender and race have large impacts on perception and researchers were looking for subtly perceived differences among mostly homogeneous faces.

Participants were asked to create faces appropriate for 15 specific names using face construction software, similar to programs used by the police in eyewitness identification. A second group of participants generally endorsed the faces as fitting the names: Most predictable name-face matches were Bob, Bill, Brian and Jason. "These prototype faces that seem to exist for different names are not just idly occupying space in our mind, but have implications for how easily one learns the names of individuals," says Thomas.

In a third study, the authors demonstrate that if the name fits the face, with 'fit' being defined by the previous matching study, participants can more easily learn the face-name pairing, but when the name doesn't fit, people have more difficulty learning to name the faces.

"People choose names for their babies not knowing how they will look later in life, but it seems society has an idea of what people's names might be merely by looking at them," says Thomas.

Thomas and colleagues have two directions in mind for more research. One is to try to identify why people seem to have particular types of faces in mind for some names. One hypothesis that has some support is that the sound of the name crosses over to the visual representation. For example, 'Bob' is a round sounding name and many participants produced a relatively round face for the name 'Bob'. Evidence from a recent study supports this possibility.

A second direction of their research is to examine if there are any top-down consequences on face perception of having face-name prototypes in our heads. "That is, if I tell you the fellow you will be meeting this afternoon is named 'Bob' will you perceive his face rounder than it actually is? Or if I tell you that his name is 'Tim', will you perceive him to be thinner than he actually is?" asks Thomas. "These types of effects of category labels on lower-level perception are becoming a concern for researchers in cognitive and social psychology because their existence suggest that we may not ever be able to see what's actually there but will always be influenced by what we expect to be there."

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