Are You a Super Recognizer?

by WCE

Do You Have a Face-Finding Superpower for Fighting Crime?

This National Geographic article on people who fight crime by recognizing faces exceptionally well intrigued me. I read the New Yorker article (linked within) on prosopagnosia by Oliver Sacks and did the University of Greenwich facial recognition test. I recognized 5 out of 14 faces, so I’m not good at it, even though the faces are Caucasian and I grew up around mostly other Caucasians.

I’m curious about whether women would be easier to recognize than men are and whether women have roughly the same range of facial recognition ability as men do. I’m also curious if this ability changes with age. The military is largely young and male, and it seems like this ability would be really useful when fighting terrorism. I’m also curious if Mooshi thinks computers will ever be as good at recognizing people as super-recognizers are. Of course, I accept at face value the claim that the distribution of this talent in the population is largely Gaussian, like virtually every other human characteristic.

On a personal level, I read the article because I feel like I’m bad at remembering people and wondered just how bad I am. In the lab where I work, we wear bunny suits that cover your face. People have observed that colleagues notice women’s pregnancies earlier when they wear bunny suits, because of how their gait changes. In the lab, we recognize people by their gait rather than their face.

The article on Oliver Sacks made me think of my Dad and Mr. WCE, who can both remember how to get somewhere after a single visit. My Dad sometimes remembered which way to turn in a village in Germany nearly twenty years after his only visit. Mr. WCE carries a GPS now, but he hunted with topographic maps for his first couple decades in remote areas of Washington and Montana. To my knowledge, he’s never been lost. One of my friends has an uncanny ability to remember what people wear. She remembers my clothing, including shoes, and has occasionally made comments like, “You were wearing that shirt last time I saw you.” This talent amazes me, since in my world, the purpose of clothing is to keep other people from having to look at me naked. On an emotional level, I’ve enjoyed watching the development of Baby WCE’s face over the past months as I nurse her, from squished newborn to a face so like her father’s that my colleagues who saw her commented that she looks JUST like her Dad.

Are you a super-recognizer? Do any of my reactions trigger similar thoughts of your own?


139 thoughts on “Are You a Super Recognizer?

  1. I am an under-recognizer, to such an extent that I wonder if it is an actual learning disability. It is almost as if I am face blind. I can remember names, but when I see a person for even the fifth or sixth time, I can’t remember if I have seen that person before. It is not a good trait.

  2. we recognize people by their gait rather than their face.

    That paper is from 1977 but they’ve done more research on it. When they create a computerized stick figure representation of how someone walks and show it to the subject they instantly recognize themselves. Which is interesting as most of us rarely see ourselves walk.

  3. I surprised myself by doing well – 12 out of 14! I was concentrating though, and I don’t think I do this in real life.

  4. Rhett – totally agree on the gait. When I was in college I could recognize people at a distance by their walk, but I was purposely not wearing my glasses, so their faces were blurry until they got closer!

  5. I got 12, but I was concentrating. No way would I do well picking someone out of a lineup when I didn’t know I was supposed to be paying attention.

    MM – maybe you have this?

    My kids all look exactly like me. Even the one who was born 12 weeks early looked exactly like me when born. All of the doctors and nurses would comment on it.

  6. OK, that was weird — I took the test expecting complete and utter failure, and I got 10 out of 14 (and I am pretty sure I know one of the 4 I missed, because I second-guessed my first choice). It was complete gut instinct; I was trying to break it down logically and remember specific features, but then sometimes you couldn’t see those specific things in the next photo and I still knew immediately which one it was.

    The weird thing is that I am 100% like Mooshi in real life — I cannot for the life of me remember people whom I have met even multiple times. Or, more accurately, I remember that I have met them before, but I have zero clue what their name is or in what context I know them. Just yesterday, I was at a client meeting, and I sat down next to this woman and thought, hey, I know you, why are you here? But it took me almost 10 seconds to realize who she was: the lawyer who’s been in the office next to mine FOR THE PAST 7 YEARS — I had forgotten we’d loaned her to this client for a few months.

    So I guess “facial recognition” and “name recognition” are two completely unrelated skills. :-)

  7. I got 10/14

    but if I’m watching a movie with a bunch of white men (like this quiz) if I don’t know who the actors are I’ll get them mixed up…makes it hard to follow the plot

  8. I got a ten but was concentrating. I recognize faces but then can’t remember where I know people from (was much better about this when I was younger). Whenever we watch movies I now have to google someone to get where I know the actor or actress from, whereas when I was younger I would have figured it out pretty quickly on my own.

    My kids are a mix between DH and I (and they seem to go back and forth between which they look like more) but they all looked almost exactly alike as babies. I still get comments all of the time about how I had triplets years apart.

  9. I got 7 out of 14. I was concentrating really hard and I guessed on well over half of the answers. I had no clue.

    I have an extremely difficult time recognizing people. I tend to figure out who people are based on their gait, hair color, context, clothing style. I have a difficult time recognizing people out of context. I have a difficult time picking my children out of a crowd.

  10. I got a 9, but I am generally good at remembering people I have met/seen before. Sometimes I don’t recall their name, but I can usually figure out the “link” to where I have seen them…school, scouts, work, etc. If I have seen someone a few times, I can usually get at least part of their name.

    I notice things. Many years ago, before all the security, during a busy time a female dropped off a package with the receptionist. I happened to be walking through as the package was delivered. In addition to the receptionist another co-worker was in the room. It was later opened by the office manager and was threatening material directed at one of our board members. I was the only one who could describe her. What initally caught my eye was that her top was misbuttoned near the bottom.

    I am generally good with directions, but going somewhere for the first time at night and then trying to repeat it during the day is hard. The reverse isn’t. One place we go I have a terrible time with, I can’t figure out if it is becasue almost every time there is construction or what. I have been there at least 10 times. I can get home perfectly fine, every time.

  11. I am pretty good with directions. Unless I have done something fairly disorienting, like fly cross country, I almost always know where north, south, east, and west are. I can figure out how to get where I need to go, even in places I haven’t visited for years.

    I really hate the way people change their hair color all the time. A few years ago, one of my office friends went from brunette to blonde. She was walking towards me and noticed that I was took a while to greet her. She thought I didn’t like her hair color; I just couldn’t figure out who she was.

  12. kid of on topic, do you get certain actors and actresses mixed up (that look alike)?

    Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Javier Bardem
    Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley

  13. I got 9 and I’m also like AustinMom in that I usually remember the circumstances of meeting someone but maybe not their name. I think I freak people out sometimes when I can recall when & where I have met them (sometimes multiple times) and they don’t remember me at all. Either they think I’m stalking them or I’m just not very memorable! But I’m not usually observant enough to be a good witness if a crime is committed.

    I’m pretty good with directions too, and I can actually read maps. But I still use my GPS (well, now Google Maps on my iPhone) because I like knowing how long it will take to get somewhere, if there’s traffic, etc.

  14. Agree about the gait as an identifying feature. I just returned from a family reunion, and I was reminded of an inherited gait that we’ve joked about for years — it kind of looks like a slouching cowboy, bowlegged and slightly hunched. Not the most attractive look!

    As a minority female in a predominately white male industry, I was always at a disadvantage when it came to recognizing people in my business network. Everyone usually remembered me, but they all looked alike to me!

  15. I am terrible at being able to visualize a map in my head. I’m good at remembering a list of directions (turn left, go 3 blocks, then go right) – but just can’t picture it. One of the things I like about Seattle is that almost all of the streets are on a grid. Between that and the striking geography (Olympic mountain range and Puget Sound on the west and Cascade mountain range and Lake Washington on the east), I find it very easy to orient myself. I really appreciate this since it doesn’t come naturally to me. My mom lived in Spokane, WA for a couple years and I could never orient myself there – not on a grid, everywhere looks the same, no mountain ranges in the distance that you could use to know where are you are.

  16. I am envious of super recognizers, but I could try harder if I really cared. It’s a real advantage for politicians. Once at a train station a local politician greeted me and my companion by name even though we had met only once or twice before!

  17. It’s also hard for me to keep pictures of what things look like in my head. For example, I saw a Ferrarri and was later trying to describe it to DS. All I could remember was red, white stripes on the hood, 2 door. But I had a very vague picture in my mind of what it looked like. Whereas DS can remember what things look like much more clearly. He gets this from DH. When we go shopping for furniture, I rely on DH to have a sense of whether a piece of furniture will fit in the space we have – I just don’t have clue.

  18. CoC, your point about being a professional minority resonated with me. I had a meeting with a new manager yesterday and we met in the lobby at noon. Roughly three dozen people passed through in the five minutes I sat there. All were Caucasian, I think all were over 40, and only one other woman passed through. One of Mr WCE’s former colleagues recognized me and stopped to chat. I figured it was far easier for my new manager to find me (female, back from maternity leave) than for me to find him so I just showed up early and sat.

  19. I was in a male dominated profession for many years, and I have a last name associated with my industry. Somewhere along the lines of Dr. Bug the entomologist. I very much enjoyed the fact that I was recognizable and memorable.

  20. 7 out of 14 for me. I have a very weak internal GPS, have little ability to visualize a map in my head, but am fine following street names/directions and maps. Even in NY it takes me a few seconds to re-orient myself every time I get out of the subway. DH is the complete opposite: never lost, knows an area by buildings, features, always seems to know where he is intuitively, remembers places and routes from places he used to live.

    While in England, I was driving and DH was giving directions. TERRIBLE combination! He would say something like “turn left at the cathedral” and I was like “What cathedral? What is the street name? Is it the next left?” We drove around that darn cathedral at least 3 times.

  21. I can only recognize people in context. I met a new neighbor twice with her daughter and dog. I saw her out at dinner with her husband, and she was clearly insulted that I had no idea who she was. When everyone wore suits to work, and I’d see someone at Home Depot in the weekend, I frequently failed to recognize then. But I can remember a ridiculous amount of facts about people. I could describe to someone this summer facts I learned about a girl who came through rush at my sorority 30 years ago. There is absolutely no market for that skill.

    I also am directionally challenged, particularly inside like at a mall. I come out of a store and have no idea which way to turn. I do know the name of every street, but live with people who navigate by landmarks so cannot give directions to family members.

  22. I can only recognize people in context.

    I have problems with this too. We ran into someone from church while we were at a festival and DH recognized him right away and it took me a minute to place him.

  23. I find this all very interesting because, aside from spatial orientation/sense of direction and people’s faces, I have a really good memory. Names of people are hard (that actor who was in that movie we saw last week, yeah him), but otherwise my head is full of random trivia and detailed information about work stuff going years back. I can’t tell you what day of the week something happened but can give the context, outcome, issues, etc.

  24. Re only recognizing people in context – the running joke with my swimming group if we run into each other outside the pool is, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!”

  25. Oh, yeah, I am also very good at directions. Not in the “guy” way of “drive east 1.4 miles” (easily the best way to get me lost) but in the “navigate by landmarks” way. If I’ve driven or walked somewhere once, I can always find it again (or find my way back home). It must be sun-related, because I struggle more inside (malls are ok, large office building complexes are not) and in places like forests and Columbia, where you’re following windy trails/streets that curve every which way and are underneath a tree canopy the whole time. It’s also intuitive vs. intentional/logical — the entire first year after we moved to NM from CO, I consistently turned the wrong way going anywhere, because the mountains were on the other side!

    But GPS is killing my abilities. If I go somewhere following a real map or having someone tell me where to go, I’m fine. But if I go somewhere using turn-by-turn GPS, fuggedaboutit — whatever that switch is in my brain, it seems to focus on the stupid little device, and not on the actual outdoor environment, so the path and landmarks somehow just never imprint.

  26. So a kind of related question. Were you just born knowing to look people in the face or eye? I was probably in high school before I read a book that mentioned looking people in the eye and I realized that that was a thing I should be doing. I have a friend who told me recently that her daughter almost got rejected from an exclusive honors program because the interviewer said she never made eye contact, and she was stunned that she had never noticed that before about her high school aged daughter Because of my concerns about one of my children, I was pretty obsessed about making him make eye contact from a young age, but I don’t know if that’s something he would have picked up on his own without me constantly making it a thing. Is that something that just comes natural to most people ?

  27. I have a decent map of my current city in my head. Though, once you get off into some neighborhoods it is so windy and meandering it is hard to do anything but back track if you make a wrong turn. Other cities that have a pattern – Dallas is relatively grid like and San Antonio is a wagon wheel – are easier for me to “recover” from a wrong turn or poor provided directions. I use a combination of directions (N, S, E, W) and landmarks. I will give directions, like exit the freewayfor Major Street and turn left (east) on Major Street toward 2nd Major Street. Go two blocks and turn right (south) on 2nd Major Street. On the NE corner where you turn is a gas station.

    My quirk is that once a street is in my head as going a certain direction, that becomes my reference for it an the streets it intersects regardless if it changes direction along the way. To clarify – my city has a highway that in theory is a N-S route, but in my part of town goes E-W, so it is very hard for me to turn it into a N-S route in my head. Just now looking at a map, I realize that almost EVERY major road in my city is on a diagonal to “true” north.

  28. MBT – I think it comes more naturally to extroverts. My DD#1 is an introvert and the – make eye contact, don’t shake with a wimpy hand, etc. – body language cues that lead to “successful” communication have to be drilled into her brain. DD#2 is an extrovert and much of that comes more naturally.

    Another awareness issue about fitting in – watching what others wear and do and matching it can help you fit in.

  29. Holy crud, I only got 3, but I knew that. My freshman year of collage, my older sister came to visit me. I ran into her in the hallway of my dorm before I was expecting her and it took talking with herfor several minutes before it dawned on me that this was my sister and not a random girl who lived in my hall.

  30. It is interesting that so many people here say they are terrible at face recognition. I am too. Is this selection bias – are we all here because we prefer to see people as names on the screen? I couldn’t pick any of my 20 patients from yesterday out of a line-up, though I could repeat back 5-10 relevant lab values on anyone who had blood drawn. I met a doctor that I had worked with for 5 years (and we had been to each others’ homes) at a restaurant and it took me a shockingly long time to place him. I can remember lots of personal details (hair style, jewelry, brand of purse – but not the face). I have wondered if this is some kind of learning disability as well. I am thankful to work in a place where everyone must wear a badge.

    A friend has been really proactive about teaching his school-aged son to look people in the eyes and make polite conversation. The son is charming – which may be because he comes from charismatic parents. However, I am sure the instruction doesn’t hurt. It has inspired me to be explicit with nonverbal coaching for my kids (“when someone says something nice about you, look them in the face and say ‘thank you'”).

  31. That was fun… I got an 11 out of 14.

    IRL I’m not that great at putting names/faces together. I’ll recognize someone, and get where I know the person from, but I won’t know the person’s name. Or I’ll know someone’s name, but not where I know them from and couldn’t pick them out of a line up.

    Directions are usually no problem – except for certain cities and neighborhoods that are more winding. Not wagon wheel, but truly circular and winding. I have a very good sense of direction and rarely get truly lost. I can use the sun, and landmarks to get me pointed in the right direction.

    Eye contact – I had to be taught to look people in the eye. I still have issues with it. I tend to look down a lot (shy, self-conscious, maybe). I have to make a concerted effort to keep eye contact. I worry about it with DS because it’s an early-warning cue to some developmental disorders that are common among premies. So far he’s doing ok. Sometimes he seems to actively avoids looking people in the eye – usually DH or myself. It may be a game to him.

  32. Ada, I have often wondered if doctors have any memory of patients from one visit to the next. It never seemed plausible that given 20 patients a day, 5 days a week, 45+ weeks a year, patients coming in once or twice a year that a doctor could remember any of them. I suspect that one wouldn’t really want to be a memorable patient.

  33. “Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Javier Bardem
    Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley”

    The wife from “Welcome Back Kotter” and Bailey Quarters from “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

  34. “In the lab, we recognize people by their gait rather than their face.”

    When I worked in a fab, height was a big part of recognizing people, especially when they weren’t walking. General build (i.e., skinny vs. heavy) and things like arm and leg length also came into play, as well as how people stood and what they were doing.

  35. But GPS is killing my abilities. If I go somewhere following a real map or having someone tell me where to go, I’m fine. But if I go somewhere using turn-by-turn GPS, fuggedaboutit — whatever that switch is in my brain, it seems to focus on the stupid little device, and not on the actual outdoor environment, so the path and landmarks somehow just never imprint.

    They’ve done studies on this and it’s pretty much everyone. When you are listening to directions like that, your brain doesn’t think about which direction you are going so it doesn’t register. When you look at a map or otherwise figure it out on your own, the cognitive processing focuses on the directions and such.

  36. I’m always surprised when I can recognize someone by gait, build, or how they present themselves generally. I always thought recognition came through facial features.

    DD – the studies you mention remind me of the Mythbusters episode about hands-free vs. hand-held devices. They used a driving simulation and gave people directions or asked questions over the two types of communication. Some of the questions were damn hard too! LOL! The most interesting part to me was how many people *didn’t* get the directions correct.

  37. ADA, it is a learning disability – Nonverbal Learning Disability, although not technically recognized by DSM-5. People who have NVLD are super good at hearing and remembering things, but not seeing them. In one eye and out the other (instead of in one ear and out the other).

  38. So I just got my cable bill: $189.20 bottom line. Includes standard TV (no premium channels like HBO), the fastest home internet I can get, DVR, internet modem lease, $9 for the sports pass, local franchise fee, sales tax, and the ESPN overlay (they don’t call it that of course, but that’s what it is).

    Now some of you will say I should just shut up and pay the bill…but $189/mo!!! Just too F****** much. Not that we’ll get rid of anything, we’re down to that which we actually use.

    Rant over.

  39. I have trouble placing people out of context too, but more in the sense that there are a ton of people I know slightly, and often from a context where I was meeting a bunch of people and they were meeting just me, so I think it’s just more people than I can keep track of without context clues. So anyone not obviously familiar who appears to know me, I’ll go along on the assumption that I know them while I wait for my brain to make the connection and clue me in.

    I have a decent sense of where I am relative to where I might want to be going, but not infallible. I’ve gotten turned around before, especially with those streets that look like they’re in a grid but one of them actually curves gently around till you’re perpendicular to the direction you started out going.

  40. Fred,

    You need to call and tell them you want to cancel your cable. Tell them you’re going to just take internet and use Netflix, Hulu etc. They will say, “I’m sorry I can’t do that, I’ll need to send you to the retentions depart.” The retensions department person will offer you a deal.

  41. HM & Rhett –
    Thanks to you both! Maybe I’ll have the energy for that phone call on Monday. Just can’t talk with them again today. I will buy my own cable modem…my breakeven will be 11 months.

  42. The comment about gait recognition is interesting. I would never have identified it as such, but it makes sense that gait (along with other cues) help us figure out who is who from far away like airports, across campus, etc.

    I am the same way about maps and GPS. I am terrible at randomly knowing where North is, but I have a good memory for maps and can use mental maps to find my way. To this day I’m more likely to look up a map on google maps and remember that to direct myself from one point to another. I can’t really follow what’s happening with step by step instructions (and I can’t listen to podcasts or music in the car over the obnoxious voice that’s talking, or read while driving). So I find this easier.

    I do well remembering faces, though I lose context more and more as I get older (and add more contexts). I’m good at remembering things about a person– I see their face and remember their child, their job, etc. But names come last.

  43. Fred: We bought our own modem, as well. We’ve used the same one for years, so the investment has been worth it. Do you actually watch the cable channels? We cut them out and now only have internet and broadcast tv. Coupled with Netflix, this suits our needs.

  44. I went down to get coffee and the lobby was teaming with people and as I looked around it really struck me how everyone has their own distinct walk.

  45. Never thought about the gait thing, but it makes total sense now that you mention it. I’d think, evolutionarily speaking, that it would be a distinct advantage to be able to identify unfamiliar people while they’re still far enough away that you can grab a big pointy stick.

  46. ” Do you actually watch the cable channels? ”
    well, yes, especially the sports channels.
    I’m sure there is another way to get our viewing pleasure, but for now I’m just going to try Rhett’s recommendation and see if I make any headway.

  47. 5 Seniors at my kid’s school were names NMS Semi-Finalists. No Finalists. One of the 5 is a kid who got a perfect 36 on the ACT.

  48. “it takes me a few seconds to re-orient myself every time I get out of the subway.”

    Yup, but really with the tall buildings and frequent lack of street signs, there’s really no way to easily orient yourself if you’re not familiar with that corner.

    Fred, if it makes you feel any better our bill is considerably higher. I defer to H who likes the premium channels, but it would be nice to save some money. We use our own modem, but have lots of TVs in the house.

  49. Fred, My cable company wanted to charge me about that much, but I cut back on the internet speed (since it’s just one person most of the time) and ditched the voice line. I had to take the “premium” channel package to get ESPN and HGTV – a little annoyed that they didn’t even offer a free month of HBO or something – so that put me at $120/month. Obscene! I almost did the Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime thing, but I just need my live sports. And all the various versions of House Hunters.

  50. Oh wait, we don’t own our own cable modem. I’ll look into that. I assume you only need one per house even with multiple TVs.

  51. Question — which online faxing service do you use/recommend? I want to fax from gmail. (I assume you need an outside service, but I don’t really know.)

  52. “5 Seniors at my kid’s school were names NMS Semi-Finalists. No Finalists. ”

    I believe most NMSF become NMF, but I can’t recall having ever seen a list of finalists in the paper. A much bigger deal is made of being a NMSF than becoming finalist, although becoming a finalist is very important in terms of qualifying for financial aid at a lot of schools.

  53. “I would have easily been a NMSF if I’d gone to high school in Arkansas or Montana.”

    You should’ve thought about that before taking the NMSQT.

  54. Fred, when I called FIOS I got some small relief, but when I priced out the à la carte option, the monthly fees for Hulu and Netflix plus good internet speed and standard cable plus full sports i came out to about the same price as fully loaded cable without Hulu and Netflix (we have Amazon Prime, anyway, and the 30 dollar Fire Stick – awesome). We use two TVs actively during baseball season (I have to cede one to the Mets fan) And I get an additional discount for bundling with Verizon Wireless, which has the streaming NFL Mobile app at no extra charge. I just treat my cable bill as the price of being a sports fan. It’s a lot cheaper and more comfortable than spending hours at a sports bar.

  55. “I would have easily been a NMSF if I’d gone to high school in Arkansas or Montana.”

    Not mentioning the Dakotas, Wyoming, or WVa gives us an idea what your score was.

    But keep in mind, the cutoffs vary from year to year. Back when I was in HS, no one prepped for the exam and it showed; the cutoffs were much lower.

  56. You are making me want to buy our own modem. We started renting when buying didn’t make sense (years ago) but now it does. Thanks, Honolulu.

    I was a semi-finalist, but not a finalist. I did get some scholarship money (though not much) as a SF. Of course, I’m going to blame that now on being in CA.

  57. “the lobby was teaming with people”

    This conjured an interesting visual.

    I’m guessing you actually meant, “teeming.”

  58. “I was a semi-finalist, but not a finalist.”

    Were you like Mr. WCE and not complete all the necessary paperwork to become a finalist?

  59. Yes to mixing up the two guys, but I don’t have a problem with Natalie and Keira. Also agreed on Mrs. Kotter and Bailey Quarters!

    There are two young actresses who look the same to me: Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester.

  60. I was a finalist, when the cutoffs were much lower. No one at my high school cared. It wasn’t until I was in college that I found out it was a big deal.

  61. For National Merit, there are SemiFinalists who eventually become Finalists (not reported in the newspaper) if they finish high school and return the proper forms. The big bang for the merit scholarship buck from all the honors programs comes from that level. Then there is a much smaller group of National Merit Scholars, who usually get a small stipend and something that can remain on the educational/prizes section of a resumé for many years, possibly for life, without seeming ridiculous. There are also Corporate National Merit Scholarships, which can be quite a bit more financially beneficial, and are awarded to Finalists whose parents work for a particular company, or who meet some other sort of special qualifications.

  62. Fred, that sounds like a lot to charge for what you’re getting. By standard TV, do you mean you don’t get HDTV?

    We pay about $50 less (and I need to start using the modem I bought at Costco to bring it down more), but we’re on one of the slowest internet speeds, and the fastest speeds would bump our bill up a lot.

    When we started with this company, there was just one Internet access speed, and we’ve never changed that, and the cable company kept adding higher and higher bandwidth options above ours.

  63. Finn– Nope. I was good about paperwork. Stupidly good. I was that kid who filled out the emergency cards and enrollment forms from elementary school on and had my dad simply sign them. I was trained well to be super-concientious about that sort of thing. Just the way it fell.

    I also had zero idea what a big deal it was, Murphy. No one ever talked about expecting it at our school, and it was glossed over as another of those awards that didn’t seem to mean much. I only gathered it mattered when it was attached to scholarship money.

  64. Finalists aren’t named until early spring. There are 16000 NMSFs and there will be 15000 finalists. Some like Mr WCE don’t complete the paperwork; others don’t advance because of grades.

  65. “I was a semi-finalist, but not a finalist.”

    I have honestly never heard of this before, except for people like Mr. WCE’s husband who just didn’t fill out the forms. The way my mom explained it, the difference between Semifinalist and Finalist was basically that the Finalists were the ones who chose to go to schools that gave National Merit Scholarships; the process to “qualify” for Finalist was basically automatic as long as you didn’t flunk out. But I could be conflating Finalist with Scholar per Meme’s comment — I never have been a “process” guy. :-)

  66. “It is interesting that so many people here say they are terrible at face recognition. I am too. Is this selection bias – are we all here because we prefer to see people as names on the screen?”

    Yeah, it must be, because I’m really bad at it, too. Like noticeably worse than many of my colleagues. The worst is for people I see monthly or less frequently. On the other hand, as some of you may have gathered, I have a decent memory for personal details, but I have to know you first (or Totebag-know you, as it were). Otherwise, it’s like when I meet someone with whom I’m not regularly interacting, my brain–in like an “Inside Out” scene–just throws that name and photo card in the recycle bin. Then a month later the guys up there are like “wait, you actually wanted me to keep track of him? That’s not part of my contract.”

    Fortunately, we all wear security badges, but at a conference table, that can get awkward. When my eyesight deteriorates, I’m screwed, so I’d better have my retirement accounts stocked before then.

    I’m also terrible at placing an actor from one movie to another, and I’m far worse about it with women than men, which also is something of a mystery to me. And the little bit that I do remember is based on hairstyle, so if that changes, I have no chance other than to say “Who is that!?!?!” DW can usually answer for me, but more in the vague oh he’s been in a lot of things. Then I can’t relax until I’ve paused the movie and Googled the actor for the full list of appearances.

    We were watching a Seinfeld rerun the other night, the one where there’s a guy going through AA, and George is obsessed with getting the apology that he feels he is due at the designated recovery stage. DW sees the actor for five seconds and says “”We know him!” but my mind is totally blank. It was the guy who now plays Raymond Reddington on the Blacklist, 20 years younger, 50 lbs lighter, with a full head of hair instead of bald. I never would have connected it.

    I think the introverts may just automatically think “this person is nice and all, but he’s not part of my close circle of friends, so don’t waste any brain cells remembering his name.” Extroverts think “oh, cool! A new face! File that one away!”

    Fred – $189 was what Comcast always likes to test me at, and I always call them within a month or two and say I can’t afford that. We go through a charade. I get back to $150. Sometimes at a promotional rate, sometimes with a new “contract.” Most recently, I went from something like Expanded Basic to Extended Basic, and as far as I can tell, I lost Science and Disney Junior On Demand. (But I still have the Disney Channel).

    The hard part, like Meme says, is I still need Internet and VOIP phone, and that’s $90 right there. But you still have to call. The game is their form of price discrimination.

  67. “I also had zero idea what a big deal it was”

    All the NMSF I knew of at my HS got their pictures in the school paper. I found out when a messenger from the school office sent a note to the class I was in (social studies), and the teacher read the note, stopped class, and made a big deal of it. So embarassing.

    But beyond that, I also did not know how big a deal it was. In hindsight, I’m guessing it had a lot to do with the huge amount of unsolicited college info I got, including several unsolicited scholarship offers, including one unsolicited full ride (tuition/books/room/board).

    DS told me that a couple of kids in his English class got pulled out of class a couple of days ago because they are NMSF, and all the NMSF were summoned for a group photo. That’s how he knew the announcement had been made. Last night we looked at the list in the paper, and besides the kids in his school, he knows quite a few of the NMSF from other schools through speech and debate.

  68. I’m good at facial recognition but terrible at remembering how to get places. I seriously have gotten lost in my own neighborhood, and we’ve lived here for years. i have zero sense of direction.

  69. “I’m also terrible at placing an actor from one movie to another”

    I’m actually pretty good at placing actors from other roles, as is DS. I seem to associate an actor with the first role in which I saw him (same with actresses), which are often guest roles in TV series.

    E.g., the king’s buddy in Galavant is forever to me a contract killer from an Elementary episode.

  70. “I need to stop replying on my phone.”

    OK, now I’m really confused. Are LfB and BL actually the same person? Has anyone ever seen them together?

    But please don’t stop replying on your phone, especially if it is an iPhone. Autocorrect often produces moments of levity, which are appreciated.


    I think it’s cognitive limitation to how many people you can really know, combined with the likelihood that we’re wasting some of our slots on people we don’t really know like celebrities. And I think that context helps us expand that number for the people we know more casually — you can keep ‘people from another organization who I interact with through work’ separate from ‘people I directly work with’ separate from ‘people I know from this kid activity’ separate from ‘old college friends I keep up with on social media’ — but you’re still going to feel like you’re constantly scrambling whenever you run across someone out of context. I would guess that successful politicians and networkers would score in the 95+ percentile on this ability, assuming you could find an instrument to measure it.

    No doubt it’s trainable to some extent too, and there it may be that if we don’t view it as an essential skill we don’t teach ourselves how to retain a name on meeting someone, or tidbits of personal information.

  72. “combined with the likelihood that we’re wasting some of our slots on people we don’t really know like celebrities.”

    Stupid Duggars. That’s like 25 prime slots wasted.

  73. Finn – I can verify that you don’t have to be a NMSF to receive unsolicited brochures from colleges, including offers of admission, based on PSAT scores. (There are a LOT of SLACs in rural Pennsylvania.) In fact, NMSF was not something I’d ever heard of or paid any attention to until I found this blog. Someone advised us to take the PSAT beginning Freshman year. I got a 1070. Sophomore year I got a 1260. I took the SAT Fall of Junior year and scored 1400 by the skin of my teeth, and called it good enough.

  74. You need to call and tell them you want to cancel your cable. Tell them you’re going to just take internet and use Netflix, Hulu etc. They will say, “I’m sorry I can’t do that, I’ll need to send you to the retentions depart.” The retensions department person will offer you a deal.

    That’s just your sense of entitlement talking.

  75. I finally had time to take the test and got 10 out of 14. I’m usually pretty good with faces, but I can’t remember names at all.

  76. “The retensions department person will offer you a deal.”

    Yes, they’ll offer to check all the fasteners around your TV and equipment, ensuring that all bolts are torqued to the proper tension.

  77. The only reason we even get TV is for NFL and the Olympics. I get the sports thing.

    The big expense is the high-speed internet. Now-a-days, the TV part is kind of an add-on. Since I do a good amount of work at home, I need a decent speed. We get 25 MBPS.

    I was a NMSF, but I didn’t fill in the paperwork either. My parents are immigrants and we just didn’t understand the importance of it. I didn’t understand until I started reading about it here.

  78. I am so old that in my day they didn’t even use the PSAT as the qualifying test for the National Merit System. There was a separate NMSQT only administered to college prep juniors, and those results generated all of the mail from colleges. Most people didn’t bother with the PSAT in those days, anyway, since it didn’t have any real purpose. Top students took the SAT in spring of junior year, and retook it in fall of senior year if the first results were not sufficient. ACT was uncommon in my state. A student took a Science Achievement Test right after she finished the science course and the Math, English, and Foreign Language Tests and the Writing Sample whenever – it was cheapest to take 3 at one sitting.

  79. Ok, you guys, I am clearly just in a mood. I just found out from my sister, that my maternal grandmother tried to convince my mother, when she was in high school, to commit suicide with her. Jesus, no wonder she was insane. And she was Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford. They didn’t have National Merit Scholars in those days. But so much other s*** matters other than smarts. Hearing everyone obsessing about who’s NMSF and who isn’t. ..get a fucking grip, people!

  80. “Top students took the SAT in spring of junior year, and retook it in fall of senior year if the first results were not sufficient.” Same here. ACT was an option when I was in high school, but it was viewed as less prestigious. It was the test you took if you couldn’t master the SAT. Now it’s a real alternative to the SAT.

  81. “A student took a Science Achievement Test right after she finished the science course”

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but when I took the Achievement Tests, there were two people in the room. One was the proctor.

    I think there were two people in my HS class besides me who applied at colleges that required Achievement Test scores.

    In my day, most college-bound kids at my HS took the SAT in fall of senior year. Period. I don’t know of anyone who retook it back then.

    I remember it was fall because most of us had been up late the night before at a HS football game and the post-game hijinks.

  82. Rocky, You are correct, of course. However, I enjoy the discussion. This is the only place I get to talk about such things.

  83. Houston, I hear you. Like I said, I’m in a mood. I’m finding out too much about everything today.

  84. It’s funny, we talk way more about NM on here than we do about Presidential. I guess it’s the money angle.

  85. Rocky, I don’t think anyone here is putting all that much stock in National Merit other than that it’s vaguely related to all this college stuff we’ve discussed. But it sounds like a tough day all around for you and I can see why it strikes a wrong note right now.

    In unrelated news, our soccer season starts tomorrow and we have two teeny tiny games tomorrow. At this age they are damn adorable to watch.

  86. Perhaps we know more NMSF than Presidential Scholars, and it’s a more realistic target for many of our kids. And given how few Presidential Scholars there are, if your kid is one, talking about it would pretty much out you.

    And yes, there’s the money angle too. NMF status is potentially worth 6 figures, althouth I would guess that Presidential scholars are typically NMF as well, so they would likely have even greater possibilities of financial aid.

    So does anyone here know any Presidential Scholars, or anyone invited to apply?

  87. I’ve been watching the Calaveras fire all day. It is over 50,000 acres now, with no estimate of containment. Towns are being evacuated. The area is in the Sierras, lots of cattle ranches, people with horses. I can do nothing but watch and offer moral support. We don’t even have livestock trailers anymore.

    I wouldn’t mind if anyone put forth these good happenings. Sometimes it is nice to realize that good, ordinary things are happening out there.

  88. Murphy, has the fire area already had all the rain that was expected from the remnants of Linda? Is this something with no end in sight? We sometimes have brushfires that burn for a couple of days, but nothing like what you get, so I don’t have a good sense of how these things go.

    Finn, being invited to apply is just based on your scores: . I am closely related to a couple of scholars, but am not one myself. I’d be surprised if we didn’t have a few among the Totebaggers.

  89. HM, There is always an end in sight…..Eventually, the firefighters will build fire breaks around the fire and it will burn itself out, or El Nino will come and the November rains will put it out. That area is kind of north for Linda to help, although even some humidity would help. Usually, the fire lay down at night, but this morning on the six o’clock news, there were tree exploding, which is generally a mid morning/afternoon phenomenon. It is gorgeous country there, up and down canyons, very inaccessible.

    I’ve never heard of Presidential Scholars before today. The things we learn on the totebag :)

  90. OK HM, I’m impressed.

    You piqued my interest, and I’m decompressing a bit at work from a big push, so I googled some recent Presidential Scholar lists. From my kids’ school, I saw a lot of the usual names of the high achieving kids, then I noticed a couple of names I know from another school. One used to be in the same violin group as my kids when they were young (and also was a HS debater); the other is the DD of a good friend of DW, who we will probably see tonight (DW’s friend, not the DD, who is in college now).

    I think we’d have some invitees among the Totebag crowd, which would include our families, but I would not be surprised if there aren’t a few of the winners here, given how few of them there are, 141/year vs. ~16k NMSF.

    And again, given how few of them there are, people might be reticent to ID themselves or family members as winners.

    One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be a higher representation of public school kids among the applicant lists, and this from Wiki probably explains that: “In addition, each Chief State School Officer (CSSO) may nominate up to ten male and ten female candidates, based on their outstanding scholarship, residing in the CSSO’s jurisdiction.”

    I’m guessing that in our state, the CSSO works for the DOE and nominates public school kids.

  91. Yeah, Finn, you got me — guess my lesson is not to blog as an escape from catching up on my time entry (oh so deathly dull on a Friday afternoon).

    So here’s one from the Never Even Occurred to Me to Worry About files: my mom comes home tonight from a business trip to discover her entire first floor coated in white powder.

  92. Crap stupid phone — premature post. Anyway, my mom comes home to her first floor totally coated in white powder — solid coat. She immediately calls DH, who comes running. They walk through first floor and can’t figure anything out but notice it is getting deeper toward the laundry room in back. Then in the laundry room, DH looks up and sees a hole in the ceiling, about the size of a half-dollar. ??? He looks down: there, beneath the hole, is a fire extinguisher, without its little white cap. Yep: the thing blew like the water heater on Mythbusters, and covered every square inch of her entire first floor in white powder.

    So now we have weekend plans. And you won’t be surprised to hear that we’ve already bought new fire extinguishers for both houses.

  93. US News recently released their latest college ratings. Here’s an alternative that I found interesting:


  94. I was thinking fire extinguisher. I don’t know why; I’ve never used one other than at a demonstration by the FD where you can discharge a CO2 extinguisher into a propane-fueled fire, which they promptly re-ignite for the next guest in line.

  95. I knew about Presidential scholars none in my family. when I encountered those who won the award there seemed to be a good citizen or civics component to the qualifications that may not be a large enough part of the makeup of most of us or our kids who tend toward less outgoing personalities. And as for NMSF, my kids were taking those tests 20 years ago, they needed scholarships and the girls applied for merit awards, but the NMSF honors financial packages, if they existed, never even appeared on our radar, and we even looked at ROTC.

  96. Yeah, the Presidential scholar initial screening process seems sort of like the NMS, based on test scores, but with an alternate way in. The alternate way in, and the rest of the selection process, reminds a bit of the college application process in its ‘holistic’ approach

  97. It seems like the increase in financial aid to NMSF is tied to the increased importance given to the US News ratings, and colleges trying to raise their ratings by raising their academic profiles.

  98. Both the Presidential Scholars I knew were math camp people. Being selected seemed to depend on having the “right” activities, which tend to be offered in the “right” towns.

    National Youth Science Camp might appeal to high schoolers from some Totebag families. I think its most famous alum is Marissa Mayer. I qualified but didn’t go due to previous plans; two of my siblings went.

  99. Good information about National Merit Scholarships. To RMS’s point – kid’s school – first year of middle school has not too much homework. The focus is on adjusting to a the rotating class schedule, having lockers, getting along and making friends with fellow students. It is also stressing organization and making sure grades are posted weekly by the teachers so parents and kids can see if there is missing work. A lot of things that were mentioned as issues by posters are being addressed by the school right from the beginning. I can see how things can easily spiral out of control as there is a lot more to keep track of.

  100. I just looked up the Presidential scholars from the years around when I graduated. I am slightly acquainted with one of them — the others are from small, rural schools (the same one more than once, natch).

    I think the prize for being a Presidential Scholar is the fancy trip to D.C. – not typically scholarship money. The winners aren’t announced until May of senior year – college and aid decisions are long since complete. The guy I (kinda) knew went to a prestigious school, and came from a well-off background – I suspect he did not get any aid.

  101. So consider this your PSA for the day: please go check the expiration dates on your fire extinguishers. I had no idea how much territory one of those things could cover when they blow (well, I also had no idea they could blow, so there ya go). And it’s not just dust — it gets clumpy with the tiniest drop of water (and it’s raining today — joy!), and it leaves a giant film of grease behind — the kitchen floor has been vacuumed once and mopped twice, and it is still a giant oil slick.

    So, if this happens to you, do this:

    1. Buy industrial-strength dust masks — stuff is non-toxic but irritating. Buy ear protection if you don’t already own it (you will be running loud vacuums for a very long time).

    2. Vacuum all floors BEFORE anyone walks on them. (Thank God for shop vacs)

    3. Then vacuum all surfaces, down to and including door hinges, window muntins, baseboard molding, and table legs — the stupid spirally decorations get stuff in every crevice. And the stuff seems to spread from the ground up, meaning the worst places are the ones that require a lot of bending and twisting and such.

    4. Remove all plush furniture and blow the crap out of it with a compressor.

    5. After you have done all of this, go back over the floors with vacuum and/or mop.

    6. Before returning anything to any surface, clean that surface with something that cuts grease, as appropriate for that surface.

    7. Then, after you have done all of the above, call your cleaners and buy a full day’s work as soon as you can get them out. Tell them that damp rags and dust cloths are irrelevant, and they need the industrial-strength stuff. Have them clean walls, curtains, radiators, bookshelves, etc. etc. etc.

    Or just call your homeowner’s insurance if you have a low enough deductible and go to a hotel room until they can get a commercial crew in.

    4 hours, 4.5 people, and we have about half the first floor mostly done.

  102. Laura I am so sorry that you guys have to deal with this.

    I just looked at the fire extinguisher in my kitchen, but I don’t see the expiration date. It is stamped “made in Mexico” with a number, but I am not seeing a date unless the first four numbers of about eight are the expiration date (mine starts with 1017, so maybe that is it?).

  103. Coincidence — that’s the second time this week I’ve heard about a fire extinguisher discharging and coating a residence with powdery goo. Thanks for posting.

  104. On a totally different subject……DH and I just watched Back to the Future last night. We have fond memories of seeing it together when were dating! Anyway, looking at Marty back in 1955, we talked about the fact that we (as children born in the 60’s) could go back to 1955 pretty easily. Now and when we were in 1985. I wonder if our kids would be able to adapt as well – obviously it is two generations later instead of one, but it seems like the world has changed so much from 1985 to 2015 that the differences would be so much harder to navigate!

    It was fun to think about it, and to speculate on buying McDonald’s, IBM and Coca-Cola stock!

  105. How do you find a list of NMSF? I googled it, but came up empty handed. Just wondering who if anyone from the local high school made it.

  106. @WCE – that’s my theory. Ours is under the kitchen sink. Flip side is DH is convinced the force of the explosion would crack the countertop, based on the hole in my mom’s ceiling, so pick your poison.

    OTOH, DH and I had date night tonight, and my mom just surprised us by calling the restaurant and insisting on paying for dinner as a thank you, so that didn’t suck. :-)

  107. Laura, thanks for sharing that story (and so sorry for all that your mom and the rest of you are going through). When we moved into our house 12 years ago, we bought a fire extinguisher, which I put in the cabinet under the kitchen sink and hadn’t given another thought to since. I just checked it, and it is one year past its expiration date. I also checked a different fire extinguisher that was already in the house when we moved in; it hangs on a hook at the top of the stairs to the basement. It has a tag saying that it was filled in 1979! I’ll keep the one that’s just one year past its deadline in the house until I can replace it, but I have moved the 1979 one out to our storage shed pending disposal. I actually have no idea how one properly disposes of an old fire extinguisher that is still full; I guess I’ll call the local fire station this week and ask.

  108. “How do you find a list of NMSF?”

    Publication varies considerable among different locations. Some newspapers and high schools consistently publish names, but others do not. Around here it has been spotty. Recently, the local paper and high school have published names, but a few years ago that was not the case.

    ” DH is convinced the force of the explosion would crack the countertop, based on the hole in my mom’s ceiling, so pick your poison.”

    I can’t remember where I saw the other report of a similar incident, but there was also a hole in the ceiling in that case. By chance you didn’t share a photo of your case in social media?

  109. very interesting article. I won’t comment now.

    LfB- wow. I am sorry that you had to go through this clean up, but a BIG wakeup call in my house. I know we have new fire extinguishers that we purchased, but I still have the old ones from the previous owners because I didn’t know how to dispose. I am calling my local FD to figure out how to get rid of the older models.

    Your tips are also very useful for the endless dust in my house right now from the construction. I hate my contractor. I want to keep saying that over, and over. I am still living on the floor, but I really hope to be back in my bedroom within two weeks. the master bath won’t be done until the end of the month because I have to wait for a shower door.

    I was curious after the discussion about the NMSF, and i was able to find with a very quick google search – the complete list from NY metro area for my year in HS. It was interesting to see the kids from my HS that made the list. Many of them are doctors, scientists or lawyers now.
    I don’t know any presidential scholars and I never heard of this program until this week.

    totally off topic – do you have a Vitamix? I know I could just get a cheaper Ninja or similar, but I really think I want a Vitamix. DH thinks that I am insane because we’ve been spending so much money on the renovation, but I’ve become obsessed with having a Vitamix. he thinks that I will never use it, but I think it could really lead to a big improvement in how we eat in our house. I go the bug again because I’ve been going to the farm market every week. This is a great time of year in the northeast for the fresh produce from late summer/early fall.

  110. Lauren – my Vitamix is 11 years old now, and I’d happily buy it again. I processed a bunch of tomato-basil-cream soup in it last night (not really a difficult feat for it, as all the vegetables were already cooked and soft).

    Tangent, I’m making shrimp creole today in the crock pot. (I told you that I’ve sworn off restaurants, so I’m basically always cooking something on the weekends if I’m home). I’ve never done this one before, and I don’t think the sauce tastes like anything exciting right now. I think I’m going to add heavy cream at the very end. I googled, and that was optional in several recipes. I will do that unless I hear definitively to the contrary. I’m open to any other suggestions–maybe a little more sugar, but even Paula Deen’s recipe only called for a teaspoon or so. I can’t do too much hot sauce, or the kids will rebel.

  111. Lauren, what do you want to do with the Vitamix?

    For making smoothies, our Oster works fine. I was also able to find all sorts of replacement parts for it online, at reasonable prices; I’m not sure that would be the case for a Ninja.

    Perhaps instead of a Ninja vs. Vitamix choice, you might look at Oster vs. Vitamix; Ninja seems to be in between the other two in price. Or you could get an Oster and see if your DH is right about not using it before deciding on the Vitamix.

  112. Lauren- We have a vitamix that is now about 7 years old. I don’t think it’s revolutionized how we eat, but it works really well, and we love it for what it is. (Not sure we love it $600 worth, but hey. Ninja and the like weren’t options when we bought and showed up shortly thereafter.) We use it for smoothies (including vegetables, which we killed a few cheaper blenders doing), hot soups, grinding oats into oat flour, salad dressing, and sometimes whipped creme. Most of this would be fine in other gadgets, but I love that it’s easy, fast, and I never have to worry if it’ll work. And it’s ridiculously easy to clean.

  113. Lfb Thanks for the heads up on fire extinguishers. I went to the Kidde website and the device is still good if a) it was manufactured within the past 12 years they tell you how to find that info on the label b) the dial shows full or green and c) it is not dented or rusty. It also should be stored at no lower than 40 degrees and not above 120. So a damp area or a cold one may contribute to deterioration. Dropping it on a basement floor also bad. I have the one that was left by previous owner. Too old. And the one I bought, okay.

    As for vitamix, I prefer Blendtec as a premium blender. It is often on special at Costco much cheaper than vitamix. It does not cook soup, but it has a wide mouth and you don’t have to use a pusher to make sure every thing mixes up.

    As the parent of 4 all of whom attended undergrad college in at least one of the years 2000 -2002, I look forward tomorrow’s discussion.

  114. I’ve tried smoothies in my kitchen aid and the results are just ok.

    I would love to make different veggie soups in the Vitamix. I know I would use it for soup.

    I think we had the Oster before the Kitchenaid. The motors died in both, but they did last at least 10 years.

    I think the Vitamix is worth the money if I use it all of the time. I am concerned that DH is correct, and I won’t use it enough to justify the cost.

  115. I will refrain from posting on tomorrow’s topic. It has been crazy busy at work and at home lately which is not a bad thing except for not having time for the Totebag.

  116. After checking the website, apparently the Blendtec purees and heats in the same fashion as a Vitamix – by blending at high speed for 4 minutes or so. I just assumed the Vitamix had a heating element. Ninja $150; Blendtec $250; Vitamix $400 and up. DIL makes the dreaded green smoothies every day in her Blendtec.

  117. Meme, Thanks for Blendtec info. I’ve seen them at Costco and I’ll check it out.
    Happy New Year!!!

  118. Sky, I hope you jump in often on some of these discussions (as well as everyone else here who attended top-tier colleges).

    It may be wishful thinking, but I may be facing that sort of decision soon. I’ve encouraged DS to aspire to top tier schools, with the hope (communicated to him) that he will meet or approach their standards, thus making himself an attractive candidate for lower tier schools who offer generous merit aid.

    But getting into a top tier school is looking to be less improbable than it did a couple of years ago. He’s seen kids he knows, and older sibs of his friends, going off to top tier schools, and he’s gotten test scores good enough to not keep him out.

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