Once, I followed a first date into a busy subway station. I lost track of him for a second, then found him again and followed him halfway down the platform before I heard someone calling my name. As it turns out, that minute of confusion was enough for me to identify the wrong guy as my date and almost get on a train with him. (There was no second date.)
My excuse is that I’m somewhat faceblind. That is, I have trouble recognizing faces and telling people apart, even when my vision is perfect. On the other end of the spectrum are super-recognizers, who can remember someone they saw once in a class three years ago.
If you’re curious how you stack up, you can take the Cambridge face memory test. It starts off easy, like this:
By the end, you’re looking at blurry blobs.
I scored high enough on the test that I probably don’t need clinical help. But I scored low enough to confirm that it’s not just my imagination — I really do have a lot of trouble telling people apart. Don’t get me wrong, I can recognize my friends on the street. The problem arises when it’s someone I don’t see often, who also doesn’t have a distinguishing physical characteristic.
Since I use hair and clothing cues a lot, movies can be a nightmare. A friend (clearly also slightly faceblind) told me that he once thought Justin Timberlake was a completely different character in the second half of a movie because in the later scenes “he was wearing a sweater.” For me, Fifth Harmony music videos — five women dancing, constantly changing outfits — remain a personal enemy.
On the other end of the spectrum are the super-recognizers. Though I am faceblind, my colleague Rachel Becker is a super-recognizer, so we all know who would be voted off the island first if Verge Science were on Survivor. But having an excellent facial memory can be annoying, too. “I pretend I don’t recognize people at the grocery store because there’s no way they recognize me,” she told me. Another time, she said hello to someone she had class with a few years earlier, and whose name she never knew. “It was clear they didn’t recognize me and it was very uncomfortable,” Rachel said.
Another co-worker, Loren Grush, once recognized the husband of her boyfriend’s co-worker, who sometimes goes to brunch with them. She stared at him to make sure he was the right person, then went to talk to him and told him she knew his wife. He plainly didn’t recognize her. Later, this man’s wife told Loren his version of the story: he thought Loren was checking him out and got super confident thinking he must have looked extra good that day. When he realized that she was just trying to recognize him, he felt embarrassed that it wasn’t true.
Then there’s my editor, Liz Lopatto, who got a 90 percent on the facial recognition test but is terrible at names. She once saw a woman she recognized in the Los Angeles airport and waved. She couldn’t immediately put a name to the face, but guessed it was an acquaintance from college — someone she hadn’t seen in years and didn’t have the context clues to identify. The woman waved back, they smiled at each other, and Liz went through airport security. An hour later, the name came to her — except it wasn’t a college classmate. It was actress Amy Adams. (Ed note: Sorry, Amy.)
This all goes to show that, even if you aren’t faceblind, there are many ways to embarrass and be embarrassed.