Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, 18:612

First online:

Why are names of people associated with so many phonological retrieval failures?

  • J. Richard HanleyAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Essex Email author 


Two experiments are reported that revisit the issue of why people’s names are more difficult to recall than common names such as the names of objects. In Experiment 1, retrieval of the names of a set of object pictures was compared with recall of a set of names of famous faces. The object and face sets were matched for preexperimental familiarity. The results showed significantly more tip-of-the tongue (TOT) states and significantly poorer name recall for faces than for objects. Although the overall numbers of incorrect answers for the two sets of items did not differ, the incorrect answers in the face condition were mostly “don’t know” responses, whereas incorrect answers for objects were mostly alternative names. In Experiment 2, written definitions were used instead of pictures, and target items were selected so as to keep the number of alternatives to a minimum. Under these circumstances, there were no differences in either the number of items correctly named or the number of TOTs for common and people’s names. These findings are consistent with the views of Brédart (Memory, 1, 351–366, 1993), who argued that there are fewer documented TOTs for common names because a semantically related alternative often comes to mind when a participant is experiencing, or is about to experience, a retrieval failure.


Metamemory Face recognition