Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite. We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success. Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind. It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure. “Ah Ha! That’s what we were trying to remember the other night. Yes!” I said to myself. These types of memories are called Mind Pops.
They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories. As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought. In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to. These recall events pop into conscious thought (i.e., your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.
These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random. Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences. Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself. In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.
Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory. Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient. People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly. Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).
This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops. Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping. As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness. When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.”
Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common. I’m sure that you have likely experienced such events yourself. Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care. In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander. A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out. Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces. That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.
Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues. Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues. On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months. Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.
In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection. In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.” Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.
In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.” This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth). For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood. Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.
Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain. Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain. And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.
Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004). The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.
Cowen, Mark, (2012). ‘Mind-pop’ frequency increased in schizophrenia patients. MedWire News.com
Guild, G. (2010). Are You a Robot? can I Program Your Responses? How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com
Guild, G. (2012). The Guilt – Empathy Connection. How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com
Elua, I., Laws, K., and Kvavilashvili, L.. (2012). From mind-pops to hallucinations? A study of involuntary semantic memories in schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research. V. 196 (2), Pgs. 165-170.
Jbar, Ferris, (2012). Mind-Pops: Psychologists Begin to Study an Unusual form of Proustian Memory. Scientific American.com
Kvavilashvilia, L., and Mandler, G. (2003). Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories. Paper shared by author in personal correspondence.
Science Daily (2012). Mind-Pops More Likely With Schizophrenia. ScienceDaily.com
Sometimes the quietest moments are the most troubling. Serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.
Does this sound familiar? I have long struggled to make sense of this sequence of thoughts. It’s not as though these distant missteps weigh heavily in my conscious mind. And most of the time they have no or very little current relevance. Almost always the events involve a situation where I had no intention of being hurtful. So why would my brain dredge up painful events and spoil a perfectly pleasant moment? It makes little sense to me.
I have long felt like there is a dark and deeply self effacing entity lurking in the shadows of my mind just waiting for an opportunity to rain guilt on me. Really, it does feel like there is something lurking inside my mind, stalking my thoughts, waiting for a memory that can be linked back to an event that will make me feel bad about myself. Freud’s notion of the Super-ego seems particularly relevant, but there is no evidence of such embodied moralistic forces battling it out in the brain. There are however, brain systems that interact in a way that are compellingly similar to Freud’s model with regard to active decision making. But it is not clear to me how, or why, these systems would reach back in time to spoil a moment of serenity.
As I understand it, the brain is comprised of a complex combinatorial neuronal network that has evolved over millions of years. With this being the case, there must be either some adaptive value to this capacity to stir up guilty feelings, or it may be a side effect of some other adaptive neurological system. These hypotheses are made assuming that this propensity is neither pathological or unique to me. Given the fact that these recall events do not adversely affect my life in any substantive way, beyond briefly bumming me out, and the likelihood that I am not alone in experiencing this – it must be adaptive at some level.
As it turns out there appears to be evidence for a relationship between dispositional empathy and one’s proneness to feelings of guilt. In a study titled Empathy, Shame, Guilt, and Narratives of Interpersonal Conflicts: Guilt-Prone People Are Better at Perspective Taking by Karen P. Leith and Roy F. Baumeister they found that Guilt:
“… seems to be linked to the important cognitive components of empathy, particularly the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective (or at least to recognize that the other’s perspective differs from one’s own). Guilt-proneness is linked to both the ability and the willingness to consider the other’s perspective.”
So these feelings of remote guilt may indeed be adaptive in that they fuel my perspective taking capacity. In other words, they compel me to be all the more careful and sensitive so as to facilitate better outcomes with regard to current social relationships (and thus avoid future negative recollections). I am inherently driven to look at the other person’s perspective in most of my encounters with people. It seems that those situations that spring forth from the depths of my memory are those occasions when I did not effectively employ good perspective taking.
Empathy is widely accepted as being an adaptive skill and perhaps guilt proneness facilitates positive feedback thus driving one toward more effective empathy. Or perhaps the guilty feelings drudged up are experiential outliers – the memories with stronger visceral tags – the ones that are more easily dragged to the forefront as my brain meanders down memory lane. Leith and Baumeister’s research did not address the retrospective nature of experiences like mine; therefore, I continue to speculate. But this link between empathy and guilt makes sense. Or maybe this is a self-serving bias.
If you have a moment, please click on the link below to answer some questions that will give me some preliminary information on this empathy-guilt relationship. It’s only 5 questions – and really, it should only take a minute or so.
Click here to take survey
I have always said that there is a fine line between intelligence and fear. Some fear is adaptive and entirely reasonable: particularly when the catalyst truly involves danger. There are some anxieties however, that take hold and profoundly affect behavior in unreasonable ways.
One personal example comes to mind to illustrate this. Last winter I was backpacking on a trail that traversed some rock city formations with deep, but relatively narrow, crevasses. Many of the cracks were unintimidating and easily traversed. There was one however, that stopped me in my tracks. The gap was 36-40 inches across a sheer 25 foot drop. Under more typical circumstances, this gap would have not phased me. Yet, in this situation, I was completely frozen.
Rock City Crevasse
To be clear there was some risk associated with this crossing. But, in my mind, the risk took on unreasonable proportions.
Frankly, I was both embarrassed and befuddled by this situation. Were it a stream of equal width, I would have easily hopped over it.
I stood there at battle with myself for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably only a minute or two. My body was hostage to a cognitive tug-of-war between my rational brain urging me to leap. “Come-on” I uttered to myself “It’s only three feet across!” “You can do this!”
Another force in my brain countered with incapacitating doubt. Kevin, my backpacking companion, patiently waited on the other side of the crevasse after easily leaping across. I saw him do it with no difficulty. I had clear evidence that the crossing was easily within my capabilities; but, the cost of a slip and a fall, far overshadowed my confidence. The frustration I felt over this coup of sorts, was immense. Finally, I was able to muster up enough confidence to take the leap. It was, in fact, quite easy. We hiked on and no further mention of this humbling pause was made.
Many fears are like this. Whether it is a fear of mice, or bees, spiders, or snakes. These stimuli impose, in most circumstances, no grave threat, but the flight response they trigger in the phobic is immense. Even when a person knows that there is no reason for fear, it persists.
This response is akin to the reluctance that most people have about eating chocolate fudge in the shape of dog feces, or eating soup from a clean unused bedpan, or drinking juice from a glass in which a sterile cockroach has been dipped. Psychologist Paul Rozin, in his famous studies on disgust, discovered that when presented with these circumstances, most people choose not to eat the fudge or the soup, or drink from the glass – even knowing there is no real danger in doing so. It is the irrational essence of contagion that drives these inhibitions.
These situations are all very different than rock climbing without ropes, where there is clear and present danger. When we are compelled to flee a truly benign stimulus, we are likely driven by an internal cognitive force that screams “RISK!” even when there is no true danger. Intriguing isn’t it, that this innate force is so powerful that even our capacity to use reason and evidence pales in comparison.
Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon. She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be. An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence. Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces. But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them. This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness. They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.
You may believe that the feces shaped fudge is “JUST FUDGE!” but it is your alief that the fudge is excrement (as a result of it’s characteristic size, shape, and color) that makes it very hard to eat. I believed that hopping over the crevasse was easily within my capabilities, but it was my “alief” that – leaping over the gap is DANGEROUS – that kept me frozen in my tracks.
You see, you can simultaneously hold opposing beliefs and aliefs and it was, in fact, these opposing forces that waged war as I stood at the edge of the precipice. You might believe that a bee is generally harmless and unlikely to sting you unless you threaten it. But, it is your alief, that the bee will sting and hurt you that triggers the autonomic arousal that compels you to flee. It is this deeply primal alief that often wins, no matter how rational you attempt to be.
In my situation, my belief in my leaping ability ultimately prevailed. Perhaps this was due to my machismo or humiliation, but ultimately I fought down and defeated the alief. It was a hard fought battle that left me feeling like a chicken despite my “victory.”
In retrospect, getting an understanding of this internal process has helped me come to grips with my hesitation. And as such, I stand in awe of the internal brain systems that play out in such circumstances.
Perhaps in the future, when in a similar situation, I will be better prepared to deal with self doubt as it springs forth from my lizard brain so that I will more effectively cope with it before it builds incapacitating momentum. After all – it’s just an alief!
The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year. A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage. The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role. Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.
Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views. I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.
One article in particular far outpaced all other posts. My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined. Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list. The other six were published in 2010. Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.
Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year. And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.
So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.
- Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
- Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
- Moral Instinct (2010)
- IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity (2010)
- Where Does Prejudice Come From? (2011)
- Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing (2011)
- What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule. (2010)
- Intuitive Thought (2010)
- Effects of Low SES on Brain Development (2011)
- Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox? (2010)
It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest. And each was posted with great personal satisfaction. This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011. These other posts include:
One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention. I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written. As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.
The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer. These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake. The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.
Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development. Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live. The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.
This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth. It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings. It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.
The bottom line:
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Life and Time
, Rational Thought
, Socioeconomic Status
| Tagged: Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Implicit Associations
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things. We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures. We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet. Our feats have been wondrous. We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space. We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind. We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter. This list could go on and on. We are very capable and very smart beings.
Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible. Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable. I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week. I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.
It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years. Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct. What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it. But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”
We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology. The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years. What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.
Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes. These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment. We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force. Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years. I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control. And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.
Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today. Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments. Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did. As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.
We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world. Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.” All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be. We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.
It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is. Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior. And how about bad behavior and acts of nature? Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism. One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy. I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent. Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us! If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness. I could go and on about our silly inclinations. We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence. In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion. We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts. Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances. We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story. This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.
Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind. For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly. We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails. Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time. It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting. Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up. Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness. Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence? I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.
I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination. Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of them. This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories. At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms). I’m guessing that it will be informative.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief? Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own? If so, then this blog is for you. I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue. I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people. I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant. There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking. And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be? I have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made. I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.
Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought. Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception. I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand. As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.
As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:
- Attribution Error
- Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
- Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
- Moral Instinct
- IAT: Questions of Reliability
- Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
- What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
- Illusion of Punditry
- Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?
What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet. It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.
I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration. Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell. Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs. Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.
Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs. These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.
There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above. Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention. This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot. Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.
The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience. Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling. I’ve covered other topics such as happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents. Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture: “We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:
“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”
We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness. Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps. Are you ready to move forward? How do you think?
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Placebo Effect
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Rational Thought
, Self Serving Bias
, Spinoza's Conjecture
I’m sure you have heard of subliminal messages. You know that classic story where it was alleged that flashing the words DRINK COKE on a movie screen for a fraction of a second would increase cola buying behavior at the concession stand. Well, that was a hoax, but you should know that I can, in other ways, tap into your subconscious thoughts and make you smarter, dumber, more assertive, or more passive for a short period of time.
This is not brainwashing! It has a different name. In the field of psychology, this interesting phenomena is referred to as priming. John Bargh (now at Yale University) and colleagues formerly at New York University demonstrated the legitimacy of priming in a very interesting paper entitled Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996). These researchers contend “that social behavior is often triggered automatically on the mere presence of relevant situational features [and that] this behavior is unmediated by conscious perceptual or judgmental processes.” One of the studies they used to empirically demonstrate the implications of automatic social behavior (priming) involved a group of undergraduates from NYU who were given the scrambled sentence test. The test involves the presentation of a series of five scrambled word groupings. From each grouping one is to devise a grammatical four word sentence. For example, one of the groupings might include the words: blue the from is sky. From this grouping your job would be to write The sky is blue. A typical scrambled sentence test takes about five minutes.
The scrambled sentence test is a diversion and a means to present words that may influence or prime the subject’s behavior, thoughts, or capabilities. In this study the subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was presented with scrambled sentences that were sprinkled with words like “bold,” “intrude,” “bother,” “rude,” “infringe,” and “disturb.” The second group was presented with scrambled sentences containing words like “patiently,” “appreciate,” “yield,” “polite,” and “courteous.” Each student independently completed their test in one room and were told upon completion to walk down the hall to get their next task from an experimenter in another office. For every subject, however, there was another student (a stooge) at the experimenter’s office asking a series of questions forcing the subject to wait. Bargh and colleagues predicted that those primed with words like “rude” and “intrude” would interrupt the stooge and barge in quicker than those primed with words like “polite” and “yield.” Bargh anticipated that the difference between the groups would be measured in milliseconds or at most, seconds. These were New Yorkers, after all, with a proclivity to be very assertive (Gladwell, 2005). The results were surprisingly quite dramatic!
Those primed with the “rude” words interrupted after about 5 minutes. Interestingly, the university board responsible for approving experiments involving human subjects limited the wait period in the study to a maximum of ten minutes. The vast majority (82%) of those primed with the “polite” words never interrupted at all. It is unknown how long they would have waited. The difference between these groups based simply on the nature of the priming words was huge! In the same paper Bargh et al., (1996) presented how students primed with words denoting old age (e.g., worried, Florida, lonely, gray, bingo, forgetful) walked more slowly leaving the office after completing the scrambled sentence test than they did on their way to the testing office. It is suggested that the subjects mediated their behavior as a result of thoughts planted in their sub-conscious pertaining to being old. These thoughts, in this case, resulted in the subjects behaving older (e.g., walking more slowly).
Priming one to be more or less polite or sprite is interesting, but there are disturbing and perhaps very damaging implications of this phenomena.
Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg, a research team from Holland, looked at how priming might affect intellectual performance (1998). Their subjects were divided into two random groups. The first group was tasked for five minutes with thinking and writing down attributes pertaining to being a college professor. The second group was tasked with thinking about and listing the attributes of soccer hooligans. Following this thinking and writing task, the subjects were given 47 challenging questions from the board game Trivial Pursuits. Those in the “professorial” priming group got 55.6% of the items correct while those primed with soccer hooliganism got only 42.6% correct. One group was not smarter than the other – but it is contended that those in the “smart” frame of mind were better able to tap into their cognitive resources than those with a less erudite frame of mind.
And then there is the research from Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995). These psychologists investigated the impact on African Americans of reporting one’s race before taking a very difficult test. They employed African American college students and a test made up of 20 questions from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The students were randomly split into two groups. One group had to indicate their race on the test while the others did not. Those who indicated their race got half as many of the GRE items correct as their non-race-reporting counterparts. Simply reporting that they were African American seemed to prime them for lower achievement.
All of these effects were accomplished completely and totally outside the awareness of the involved parties. In fact, this is an essential attribute. Effective priming absolutely necessitates that it be done outside the subject’s awareness. Awareness negates the effect.
Regardless, consider the implications, intended or otherwise of such priming. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink notes: “The results from these experiments are, obviously quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” (p. 58).
Yes, It is disturbing on a personal level with regard to the vulnerability of rational decision making, but I am more concerned about the ethical implications of our insight into this tool. Priming may be used by those with the power, influence, and intentions to manipulate outcomes to serve ideological purposes. On yet another level the reality of this phenomena supports my contention in Do we all get a fair start? that there is no true equal starting point. Societal morays and the media in particular shape how we think about others and ourselves in profound ways. We all are susceptible to stereotypes, prejudices, and biases and these tendencies can cut in multiple directions. They can also be used to bolster negative attitudes or weaken individuals in destructive ways. I am not suggesting that the sky is falling or that there is a huge ideological conspiracy going on, but we must be aware of our vulnerabilities in this regard. And we must act to avoid constraining individuals as a function of subgroup affiliation.
Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 71, No. 2. 230-244
Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 865-877.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 69 No. 5. 797–811.
The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) is a very popular method for measuring implicit (implied though not plainly expressed) biases. Greenwald, one of the primary test developers, suggests that “It has been self-administered online by millions, many of whom have been surprised—sometimes unpleasantly—by evidence of their own unconscious attitudes and stereotypes regarding race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” (2010). It purports to tap into our unconscious or intuitive attitudes at a deeper level than those that we are able to rationally express. The best way to get an idea of just what the IAT is, is to take it. If you haven’t done so already, go to the Implicit Associations Test website and participate in a demonstration of the Race Test. It takes about ten minutes.
I tend to have a skeptical inclination. This in part stems from the training that I benefited from in acquisition of my PhD in psychology. But it is also just part of who I am. Psychology is, in itself, a rather soft science – full of constructs – and variables that are inherently difficult to measure with any degree of certainty. I learned early in my training that there are dangers associated with inference and measuring intangibles. In fact, my training in personality and projective measures essentially focused on why not to use them – especially when tasked with helping to make important life decisions. Why is this? All psychological measures contain small and predictable amounts of unavoidable error – but those based on constructs and inference are particularly untenable.
This is relevant because as we look at thinking processes, we are dealing with intangibles. This is especially true when we are talking about implicit measures. Any discussion of implicit thought necessitates indirect or inferential measures and application of theoretical constructs. So, with regard to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), one needs to be careful.
Currently, increasing evidence suggests that our intuition has a powerful influence over our behavior and moment to moment decision making. Books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer point out the power of intuition and emotion in this regard. Chabris and Simons in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, make a strong argument that intuition itself sets us up for errors. Gladwell perhaps glorifies intuition – but the reality is, it (intuition) is a powerful force. Gladwell uses the story of the IAT as evidence of such power. Essentially, if the IAT is a valid and reliable measure, it provides strong evidence of the problems of intuition.
I am motivated to shed some light on the IAT – not because of my personal IAT results, which were disappointing, but because the IAT has the risk of gaining widespread application without sufficient technical adequacy. Just think of the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory and the breadth and depth of popular use and appeal that it has garnered (without a shred of legitimate science to back it up). Real decisions are made based on the results of this instrument and frankly it is dangerous. The Meyers-Briggs is based on unsubstantiated and long out-of-date Jungian constructs and was built by individuals with little to no training in psychology or psychometrics. This is not the case for the IAT for sure, but the risks of broad and perhaps erroneous application are similar.
The authors of the IAT have worked diligently over the years to publish studies and facilitate others’ research in order to establish the technical adequacy of the measure. This is a tough task because the IAT is not one test, but rather, it is a method of measurement that can be applied to measure a number of implicit attitudes. At the very foundation of this approach there is a construct, or belief, that necessitates a leap of faith.
So what is the IAT? Gladwell (2005) summarizes it in the following way:
The Implicit Association Test (IAT)…. measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think. According to the test results, unconscious attitudes may be totally different or incompatible with conscious values. This means that attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels:
1. Conscious level- attitudes which are our stated values and which are used to direct behavior deliberately.
2. Unconscious level- the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before you have time to think.
Clearly, this shows that aside from being a measurement of attitudes, the IAT can be a powerful predictor of how one [may] act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.
So here is one of the difficulties I have with the measure. Take this statement: “The IAT measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think.” Tell me how one would directly and reliably measure “unconscious attitude” without using inference or indirect measures that are completely dependent on constructs? I am not alone in this concern. In fact, Texas A&M University psychologist Hart Blanton, PhD, worries that the IAT has been used prematurely in research without sufficient technical adequacy. Blanton has in fact published several articles (Blanton, et al., 2007; Blanton, et al., 2009) detailing the IAT’s multiple psychometric failings. He suggests that perhaps the greatest problem with this measure concerns the way that the test is scored.
First you have to understand how it all works. The IAT purports to measure the fluency of people’s associations between concepts. On the Race IAT, a comparison is made between how fluent the respondent pairs pictures of European-Americans with words carrying a connotation of “good” and pictures of African-Americans with words connoting “bad.” The task measures the latency between such pairings and draws a comparison to the fluency of responding when the associations are reversed (e.g., how quickly does the respondent pair European-Americans with words carrying a “bad” connotation and African-Americans with words connoting “good.”). If one is quicker at pairing European-Americans with “good” and African Americans with “bad” then it is inferred that the respondent has a European-American preference. The degree of preference is determined by the measure of fluency and dysfluency in making those pairings. Bigger differences in pairing times result in stronger ratings of one’s bias. Blanton questions the arbitrary nature of where the cutoffs for mild, moderate, and strong preferences are set when there is no research showing where the cutoffs should be. Bottom line, Blanton argues, is that the cutoffs are arbitrary. This is a common problem in social psychology.
Another issue of concern is the stability of the construct being measured. One has to question whether one’s bias, or racial preferences, are a trait (a stable attribute over time) or a state (a temporary attitude based on acute environmental influences). The test-retest reliability of the IAT is relatively unstable itself. Regardless, according to Greenwald: “The IAT has also shown reasonably good reliability over multiple assessments of the task. …. in 20 studies that have included more than one administration of the IAT, test–retest reliability ranged from .25 to .69, with mean and median test–retest reliability of .50.” Satisfactory test-retest reliability values are in the .70 to.80 range. To me, there is a fair amount of variance unaccounted for and a wide range of values (suggesting weak consistency). My IATs have bounced all over the map. And boy did I feel bad when my score suggested a level of preference that diverges significantly from my deeply held values. Thank goodness I have some level of understanding of the limitations of such metrics. Not everyone has such luxury.
As I noted previously, the IAT authors have worked diligently to establish the technical adequacy of this measure and they report statistics attesting to the internal-consistency, test-retest reliability, predictive validity, convergent validity, and discriminant validity, almost always suggesting that results are robust (Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, et al, 2009; Lane, et al, 2007) . There are other studies including those carried out by Blanton and colleagues, that suggest otherwise. To me, these analyses are important and worthwhile – however, at the foundation, there is the inescapable problem of measuring unconscious thought.
Another core problem is that the validity analyses employ other equally problematic measures of intangibles in order to establish credibility. I can’t be explicit enough – when one enters the realm of the implicit – one enters a realm of intangibles: and like it or not, until minds can be read explicitly, the implicit is essentially immeasurable with any degree of certainty. The IAT may indeed measure what it purports to measure, but the data on this is unconvincing. Substantial questions of reliability and validity persist. I would suggest that you do not take your IAT scores to heart.
Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or fabulous? Monitor on Psychology. July. Vol 39, No. 7, page 44.
Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., Christie, C., and Gonzales, P. M. (2007). Plausible assumptions, questionable assumptions and post hoc rationalizations: Will the real IAT, please stand up? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 399-409.
Blanton, H., Klick, J., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J.,Mellers, B., Tetlock, P. E. (2009). Strong Claims and Weak Evidence: Reassessing the Predictive Validity of the IAT. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 94, No. 3, 567–582
Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J., 2010. The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.
Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.
Greenwald, A. G. (2010). I Love Him, I Love Him Not: Researchers adapt a test for unconscious bias to tap secrets of the heart. Scientific American.com: Mind Matters. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=i-love-him-i-love-him-not
Greenwald, A. G. (2009). Implicit Association Test: Validity Debates. http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/iat_validity.htm
Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97, 17–41.
Lane, K. A., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A., & Greenwald, A. G. (2007). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: IV. What we know (so far) (Pp. 59–102). In B. Wittenbrink & N. S. Schwarz (Eds.). Implicit measures of attitudes: Procedures and controversies. New York: Guilford Press.
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.
I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.
Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.
Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.
Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Cognitive Conservatism
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
Imagine yourself walking down a familiar street approaching a stranger who is obviously lost, staring hopelessly at a map. As you saunter by you provide eye contact and a look of willingness to help. He asks you for directions. As you begin to offer your advice, you are interrupted by a construction crew carrying a large door. They walk right between you and the stranger. Now imagine that as the construction crew parted you visually from the stranger a new and different person covertly took on the same lost role. This new stranger is wearing different clothes, is taller by three inches, has a different build, and different vocal qualities. Do you think you would notice?
Chabris and Simons (2010) in the The Invisible Gorilla share the results of a study carried out by Dan Simons and a colleague where they tested whether people would notice such changes in a scenario very much like the one I just described. When the scenario was described to undergraduates, 95% believed that they would certainly notice such a change (as is likely the case for you as well). Yet when this experiment was carried out in the real world, nearly 50% of the participants did not notice the switch!
This particularly startling data is indicative of change blindness, defined by Chabris and Simons (2010) as failure to notice changes between what was in view moments before and what is in view currently. Essentially, we tend not to compare and thus notice stimuli changes from moment to moment. As a result we tend to be “blind” in many cases to pretty obvious changes. And what is equally salient is that we are unaware of this blindness. If you are like most people you said “No way I’d miss that!” Yet it is likely that about half of you would miss such changes.
Unconvinced? So were a group of Harvard undergraduates who had just attended a lecture that covered the above “door study” and change blindness. After the lecture, students were recruited to participate in further research. Interested students were directed to a different floor where they were greeted by an experimenter behind a counter. As the recruits proceeded to review and complete the necessary paperwork, the experimenter who greeted and instructed them regarding the paperwork ducked down behind the counter, presumably to file some papers, only to depart as a new and different experimenter took over the role. Even after being primed with the knowledge of change blindness, not one of the students noticed the swap! This was true even for some of the students who had just moments before boldly stated that they would notice such a change. We are in fact largely blind to our change blindness regardless of our confidence regarding our vigilance.
These results, contend Chabris and Simons, comprise conclusive evidence for the illusion of memory, (which is the disconnect between how our memory works and how we think it works).
Most of us are all too aware of the failings of our short-term memory. We often forget where we put the car keys, cell phone, or sunglasses. These authors note that we are generally pretty accurate when it comes to knowing the limits of this type of memory. License plates and phone numbers have only seven digits because most of us can only hold that much data in short-term memory. However, when it comes to understanding the limits of our long-term memory we tend to hold entirely unrealistic, fallacious, and illusory expectations.
“In a national survey of fifteen hundred people [Chabris and Simons] commissioned in 2009, we included several questions designed to probe how people think memory works. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents believed that ‘once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory doesn’t change.’ An even greater percentage (63%) believed that ‘human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 45-46).
“People who agreed with both statements apparently think that memories of all our experiences are stored permanently in our brains in an immutable form, even if we can’t access them. It is impossible to disprove this belief… but most experts on human memory find it implausible that the brain would devote energy and space to storing every detail of our lives…” (p. 46).
So, as it turns out, our memories of even significant life events are quite fallible. Although we perceive such memories as being vivid and clear, they are individual constructions based on what we already know, our previous experiences, and other cognitive and emotional associations that we ultimately pair with the event. “These associations help us discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide ‘retrieval cues’ that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of precision of memory.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 48). In other words, our memories are not exact recordings, they are instead modified and codified personal replicas that are anything but permanent.
I cannot do justice to the impressive and exhaustive detailing that Chabris and Simons provide in the The Invisible Gorilla regarding the illusion of memory. However, suffice it to say, that we give way too much credit to the accuracy of our own long-term memories and have unrealistic expectations regarding others’ recall. People recall what they expect to remember and memories are modified over time based on malleable belief systems. Memories fade and morph over time depending on the “motives and goals of the rememberer.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 51).
“Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp 62-63).
They detail with riveting stories continuity errors in movies, source memory errors (is it your memory or mine?), flashbulb memories, and false memories in a way that really drives home the point that our memories are not to be trusted as factual depictions of historical fact. They beg the question: Can you trust your memory?
The answer: Partially, but you must be aware that your memory is not immutable. It is erroneous to assume that your memories are factual and it is equally fallacious to presume that other’s memories are likewise infallible. Two people witnessing the same event from the same perspective are likely to recall the event differently because of their unique personal histories, capabilities, internal associations, and thus their unique internal cognitive associations, as they store into memory the bits and pieces of the event.
Isn’t it amazing and scary that we give so much credit and power to eye-witness testimony in the court of law? Such power is conferred based on the pervasive and deeply held belief in the accuracy of memory – which you must know by now is an illusion. This is just another example pertaining to the illusion of justice in this country.
On a more personal level, next time you and your significant other get into a debate about how some past event went down, you have to know that you both are probably wrong (and right) to some degree. There is your truth, their truth, and the real truth. These can be illustrated in a Venn Diagram with three circles that from time to time have various degrees of mutual overlap. We must admit that over time the real truth is likely to become a smaller piece of the story. This necessitates that we get comfortable with the reality that we don’t possess a DVR in our brains and that we part ways with yet another illusion of the importance and power of our uniquely human intuition.
Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. New York: Random House.