Nature Journal Club

Omar Tonsi Eldakar

Center for Insect Science, University of Arizona

An evolutionary biologist learns how to be remembered: cheat someone.

What makes someone unforgettable? Is it their charm? Their looks? Or is it that they once stiffed you on the bill?

Like many others, I have trouble remembering people’s names, even as I am being introduced to them, but certain names remain etched in my mind forever. Few, for example, will forget Bernard Madoff, the New York financier convicted of defrauding people out of billions of dollars in a giant Ponzi scheme.

Raoul Bell and Axel Buchner at the Institute of Experimental Psychology in Düsseldorf, Germany, have explored this bias in memory (R. Bell and A. Buchner. Evol. Psychol. 7, 317–330; 2009). They reveal that humans have a greater propensity to remember the names of individuals associated with cheating than names associated with trustworthiness or other unrelated behaviours.

Cooperation is immensely beneficial to humans, but with cooperation looms the ever-present risk of exploitation. Researchers have proposed that humans have a specialized brain module dedicated to detecting and remembering cheaters, to help them to steer clear of future interactions with such individuals. It has previously been suggested that the cheater memory module is tied only to facial stimuli. But using the same behaviours associated with facial stimuli in previous studies, Bell and Buchner were able to replicate these findings using only names, which suggests a more general module for remembering cheaters.

Associating reputations with names is crucial to maintaining social norms through verbal mechanisms such as gossip. Thus memory bias for the names as well as the faces of cheaters could expand the ability of groups of individuals to avoid exploitation.

Madoff probably won’t have much luck if he tries to scam people again.

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