How Bad Is Forgetting Someone's Name? Little Details Matter, A New Study Says

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

We’ve all been guilty of forgetting someone’s name from time to time, but a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows how forgetting people’s names has more impact than you might think, which is bad news for those of us who have a tough time with names, or little details about a person. According to Slate, little details matter, and remembering someone’s name is kind of a big deal when it comes to forming and preserving relationships. And it happens all the time.

The study’s authors explored how the experience of being forgotten, whether details include names, birthdays, or shared life experiences, has a lasting impact on relationships. Researchers studied the online diaries of student study participants to observe how being forgotten makes people feel in relationships. And despite participants’ efforts to forgive others for forgetting something that mattered to them, researchers found that those who were forgotten felt less important to those who committed the memory slip-up. This seems like common sense — of course you're not going to feel good when your coworker calls you by your deskmate's name again — but because it's such a common experience, it's surprising that the impact is so great, and so negative.

Even though study participants consistently made real efforts to justify why others forgot about them — attributing the faux pas to absent mindedness, for instance, and not malicious intent — the damage was done, lead study author and psychologist Devin Ray told The Atlantic. “People will try their best to be forgiving,” but the long-term effects of feeling forgotten are very real, Ray said.

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The Atlantic reports that Ray, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, decided to examine how people feel about being forgotten. Ray told The Atlantic that his “earliest inspiration for looking into forgetting … came from witnessing a professor constantly mix up the names of two of his non-white graduate students.” Slate notes that this kind of microaggression — getting consistently mistaken for another person of color in predominantly white settings — is “a depressingly common experience.” And even though these mistakes may not be intentionally spiteful, they are pervasive and the effects add up over time. Ray’s study confirms how alienating being forgotten can really feel.

If two people both forget each other’s names, the potential for lasting damage is far less likely — the two might even bond over the experience.

While the impact of one small act of forgetting might fade over time in the course of a relationship, Ray’s study indicates that cumulative damage can really add up, and “create a downward spiral in which forgetting undermines investment in a relationship,” Slate further notes. What makes Ray’s research so meaningful, according to Slate, is that it shows that even when forgotten people make real efforts to forgive the forgetters, the hurt can have lasting impact — especially if it occurs repeatedly, and is experienced alongside other forms of discrimination.

It’s important to note that the study affirms that even though forgetting ultimately harms relationships, it actually has little lasting impact on people’s self-esteem. And, as The Atlantic notes, if two people both forget each other’s names, the potential for lasting damage is far less likely — the two might even bond over the experience. That said, it’s clear that despite how well intentioned you might be, making the effort to exert mindfulness towards others, in the form of remembering meaningful personal details, is an essential component to strong relationships.