You’re in a meeting or wandering down a corridor. A colleague says hello and starts to chat. You smile, make small talk and catch up on your day. It's a nice interaction, but there's just one small problem: you have no idea who they are.
Recognising people is a basic courtesy – especially in the workplace. But many people have felt the stress of desperately trying to recall the workmate sitting opposite them, only for their synapses to fire blanks. Not only is it a source of embarrassment, but it can be perceived as a faux pas: that someone hasn’t taken the time and effort to learn anything about the other person.
However, being able to memorise someone’s appearance, particularly if they’re relatively unfamiliar, and recall them in an instant – days, weeks or maybe months later – demands a vast suite of cognitive resources: from parts of the brain specific to facial recognition, to visual processing and long-term memory.
“Learning and recognising faces is one of the most cognitively demanding and neurologically complex tasks we engage in,” explains Karen Lander, senior lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Manchester, UK.
But alongside science, there are cultural and societal factors at play that can leave us blanking on who is making conversation with us at work. Not only are we predisposed to remember people who look more like us, but we also prioritise learning the faces of those we deem to be of greater importance to our lives: senior members of staff, or those in positions of power. Fortunately, there are things we can do if we want to get better at recognising everyone, not just those who might matter to our career progression - and avoid the embarrassment of failing to recognise a co-worker.
Throughout a lifetime, humans learn to recognise thousands of faces. Some research has shown that at the extreme end, the figure can be as high as 10,000.
Generally, people are adept at learning and recognising so many faces, because survival once depended on it. “In ancestral environments, being able to identify familiar faces was what mattered most,” explains Brad Duchaine, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, US. The evolutionary need to be able to quickly tell friend from foe explains why people are hardwired to remember the faces of loved ones and those most familiar – and why people can struggle to recall someone they’ve only met occasionally.
“Most people are very good at recognising faces they’re familiar with – so much so that if you see their face briefly or partially, it’s easy to recognise them,” says Duchaine. “But if you’ve only encountered someone a couple of times, it’s likely you won’t have a very good representation of that person – it’ll be harder to recognise them.”
Learning and recognising faces is one of the most cognitively demanding and neurologically complex tasks we engage in - Karen Lander
In the modern world, from city centres to social media feeds, people are frequently exposed to more faces in a single day than across their ancestors’ entire lifetimes. It means they’re more likely to be in a situation in which they draw a facial blank. “Our predecessors would be around the same small group of people all the time,” says Duchaine. “So, not being able to recognise that many faces wouldn’t have been too troubling. Today, with thousands of faces you need to remember, it becomes a much harder challenge.”
This may especially be the case now, in an increasingly digital work environment. People have evolved to interact with people face-to-face, so for the modern worker, digitised meetings eliminate the various nuances and subconscious signals that our brains pick up during in-person encounters. Duchaine says it’s harder to recognise someone if you’ve only met through a screen. “We see people from different distances and varied angles when we interact in person, and that helps build a richer representation of faces. Things like body language are hard to pick up on Zoom.”
Additionally, for a small sliver of people, there are also some biological undercurrents at work. People’s ability to recognise faces falls on a spectrum. On one end, there’s prosopagnosia, a cognitive disorder in which some people haven’t developed the ability to recognise faces (this is about 2% of the population, according to some research). At the other end of the spectrum are super-recognisers. “There are people who find facial recognition so easy, they can often successfully identify people even if they’ve only seen them once, briefly or a long time before,” says Lander.
Recognising people is important - and fortunately there are steps we can take to make sure we don't blank on colleagues (Credit: Getty)
Although less crucial than genetic factors, individual intelligence and working memory also play a role in recognising faces, adds Lander.
Certain personality traits can, however, have a much bigger influence on whether someone is more skilled at interpersonal interactions – and better able to recall a colleague’s visage. “Empathy, extraversion and lower social anxiety have all been related to individual face recognition ability,” adds Lander.
There are also deep social factors at work, too. While there has been little research on the influence of age and gender on facial recognition, seniority can play a part.
In the workplace, it’s more likely we’ll subconsciously study the smiles, freckles and wrinkles of bosses, managers and executives: the gatekeepers to our career progress are simply more memorable to us than a colleague from another department. “We’re better at encoding faces that are more important to us than those that aren’t,” says Duchaine.
Cognitive biases also prime our minds to better recognise people of the same ethnicity. “The cross-race effect means we’re much less likely to remember the faces of persons" of different ethnicities, explains Grace Lordan, founding director of The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics. “The effect has even been found in children, including those less than a year old.”
In majority-white workplaces, such psychological blind spots can impact the careers of employees from diverse backgrounds. “If a person isn’t remembered too well then they're less likely to be picked for opportunities,” says Lordan. “Having your face remembered, unsurprisingly, brings more success.”
How – and why – we should improve
Recognising people is important and a basic courtesy. But it’s also a skill. The vast majority of us lie somewhere between prosopagnosic and super-recogniser – meaning most people can take steps to improve.
We’re better at encoding faces that are more important to us than those that aren’t - Brad Duchaine
Given workplaces are often dominated by white men, and workers are coded to recognise bosses, the status quo means the same people will be more recognised than others, most of the time. So, if people want to bring forth change and greater diversity among offices and leadership teams, it’s beneficial to really try and remember the faces of people who fall into an individual’s 'unlikely to recognise' pool.
Duchaine says while memorising every employee at a company is difficult, there are steps to help reduce the cognitive load when committing a face to memory. It turns out the more someone knows, the easier the learning process can be. “The more information you have about the person, the better able you’ll be to embed them into your memory,” he adds. “Even though it’s not visual, knowing what that person does, the things they like and the friends they have connects all those various parts of the brain together.”
Additionally, in order to better navigate the role own-race bias plays in face blindness, Lordan suggests increasing the diversity of friendship and social circles. “The contact hypothesis implies the quantity of contact someone has with people from another ethnicity or culture offers them higher levels of recall accuracy,” she says. “And it has the added bonus of exposing you to new ideas, opportunities and learning experiences.”
The genetic lottery may mean some struggle more than others at recognising people. But, if we’re struggling to put a name to a face, there are other physical cues we can pick up. “It could be the way they walk or sit; their clothing, hairstyle or body shape; to even the bag they carry,” says Lander. “In a workplace, it’s perfectly possible to learn the identities of dozens of people in a meeting – even if it’s simply recognising them as being familiar, rather than any specific information about them.”
Even if it can be difficult to always recognise infrequently-seen colleagues and acquaintances, working harder to be better at face learning can bring big benefits. “Knowing the identity of people around you is important,” says Lander. “And it’s certainly true in the workplace – it means you can interact with the person in the most appropriate way.”