Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Why Are Some People's Names Easier to Learn Than Others? the Effects of Face Similarity on Memory for Face-Name Associations

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Why Are Some People's Names Easier to Learn Than Others? the Effects of Face Similarity on Memory for Face-Name Associations

Article excerpt

Using synthetic faces that varied along four perceptual dimensions (Wilson, Loffler, & Wilkinson, 2002), we examined the effects of face similarity on memory for face-name associations. The nature of these stimuli allowed us to go beyond the categorical similarity manipulations used in previous verbal associative memory studies to trace out the parametric relation between similarity and various performance measures. In Experiment 1, we found that recall performance diminished as a function of how many studied faces were in the vicinity of the cue face in similarity space. Also, incorrect recalls were more likely to come from nearby positions in face space. Experiments 2 and 3, respectively, demonstrated analogous effects with a set of more distinguishable, photorealistic faces, and in an associative recognition task. These results highlight the similarity between associative recall and associative recognition, and between face-name association and other domains of associative memory.

In the study of associative memory, similarity has served as one of the major factors that influences recall performance. High levels of within-pair similarity facilitate recall, whereas high levels of between-pair similarity impair recall (Keppel, 1968; McGeoch, 1942; Osgood, 1949; Robinson, 1927; Skaggs, 1925). The negative effects of between-pair similarity on recall are often understood in terms of the construct of interference. Specifically, if items are represented as vectors of attributes, then the degree to which nontarget representations are activated should be determined by their degree of overlap with the attributes of either the cue or the target (Gibson, 1940; Murdock, 1989).

In the verbal memory literature, studies of associative interference have typically manipulated similarity as a categorical variable, with similar items belonging to the same category or sharing a single critical feature (Feldman & Underwood, 1957; Levitt & Goss, 1961; Newman & Buckhout, 1962; Underwood, 1953). Although it would be ideal to parametrically assess similarity effects in associative memory, verbal materials do not readily lend themselves to such manipulations. Unlike with verbal stimuli, the similarity relations among perceptually defined stimuli, such as faces, can be parametrically varied (Wilson, Loffler, & Wilkinson, 2002). In addition, the relatively high-dimensional nature of faces as stimuli makes them more easily distinguishable and nameable than other classes of perceptual stimuli (e.g., Kahana & Sekuler, 2002), and the task of putting a name to a face is indeed both natural and commonplace. Our primary goal in the present study was to systematically examine the role of face similarity in both cued recall and associative recognition of face-name pairs. In studying both cued recall and associative recognition, we also sought to test the hypothesis that similarity effects obey common principles in these two domains of associative memory (Hockley, 2008; Nobel & Shiffrin, 2001; Verde & Rotello, 2004; Yonelinas, 1997).

In a study of associative interference for face-name pairs, Fraas et al. (2002) examined the errors that participants made as they attempted to recall names when cued with faces. Overall, extralist intrusions tended to be phonologically similar to the target name (meaning that the intrusion and target names tended to share two or more consonants or a vowel-consonant sequence), whereas intralist intrusions (ILIs) tended to be phonologically dissimilar. This study showed the effect of name similarity on memory for face-name associations. Although face similarity has been widely shown to influence performance in item recognition tasks (Busey & Tunnicliff, 1999; Knapp, Nosofsky, & Busey, 2006; Yotsumoto, Kahana, Wilson, & Sekuler, 2007), to our knowledge this factor has not been studied in the domain of face-name associations.

In verbal studies, similarity effects have been studied in terms of both interpair and intrapair similarity. …

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