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Memory. 1993 Dec;1(4):409-31.

The difficulty with recalling people's names: the plausible phonology hypothesis.

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Institute of Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway.


Recalling the name of a person is a simple, but often a problematic, everyday task. There are various explanations of this phenomenon, but here it is argued that the explanations offered so far, by failing to consider learning of names, have overlooked a simple account of name recall difficulty. The starting observation for this viewpoint is that names of people are often non-words, in that they have never been encountered before. This is not true of, say, names of professions. Not only does the relatively high rate of new exemplars mean that people's names are likely to be underlearned, but furthermore, even for equal degrees of learning, a person's name is at a disadvantage because of the high plausibility of most phonologies: "dreaner" is much more readily accepted as the name of a person than as the name of their profession. So specifying the phonology of people's names is inherently a more demanding task, compared to the phonology of other names. The implications of this view are explored with regard to explanations of empirically established name recall phenomena in normal subjects, the patterns of performance of anomic patients and the difficulty of name recall in different word domains. It is shown that these arguments, derived from a real world fact, account in a simple way for existing data and make predictions in different areas of research.

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