Why Women May Be Better at Remembering Faces

Women were better at remembering the faces they were shown during experiments in a new study. (Image credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock)

Compared with men, women seem to have a knack for fixating on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they've just met, a new study suggests. That tendency might make women better at remembering faces, researchers say.

Men and women recruited for the study were shown dozens of pictures of randomly selected faces with names attached and told to remember each.

To test their recall, the researchers, from Canada's McMaster University, showed the participants another random slew of facial images and told them to indicate which people they had seen before. One group was tested over one day, while another set of participants was tested over four days.

Women in the one-day experiment had a much better memory of the faces they had seen compared with men, the researchers said. The ladies' advantage was subtler over the four-day experiment. [Men vs. Women: Our Key Differences Explained]

Eye-tracking technology used during the tests could explain the sex difference. The women in the study focused on the facial features far more than men in the images presented to them, the researchers found.

"The way we move our eyes across a new individual's face affects our ability to recognize that individual later," study researcher Jennifer Heisz explained in a statement. "We discovered that women look more at new faces than men do, which allows them to create a richer and more superior memory."

Another study researcher, David Shore, a psychology professor at McMaster, said that the skill is subconscious for women since individuals don't usually notice where their eyes fixate. But the findings could shed light on how to better remember people you meet, he added.

"The results open the possibility that changing our eye movement pattern may lead to better memory," Shore said in a statement. "Increased scanning may prove to be a simple strategy to improve face memory in the general population, especially for individuals with memory impairment like older adults."

The study was detailed online May 21 in the journal Psychological Science. It's not the first to find that men and women may look at the world in slightly different ways.

In one study detailed in the journal Vision Research last year, researchers found sex differences in the way people focus in conversation. Men tend to fixate on the mouth of the person they're talking to and get distracted by background movement, whereas women tend to shift their gaze between a speaker's eyes and body and are more likely to be distracted by other people entering the scene, the researchers found.

In another Vision Research study published last year, scientists looked at how participants studied images of different objects, like leaves, owls, butterflies, wading birds, mushrooms, cars, planes and motorcycles. The researchers found that men were better at identifying pictures of vehicles they'd studied, whereas woman were better at recognizing birds and other objects of the natural world. The study's authors speculated this disparity might not have its roots in biology, but might arise from men and women being socialized in different ways.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.