The Many Ways our Memory Fails Us (Part 3)

(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)

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In the first two parts of our series on memory, we covered four major “sins” committed by our memories: Absent-Mindedness, Transience, Misattribution, and Blocking, using Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide.

We’re going to finish it off today with three other sins: Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence, hopefully leaving us with a full understanding of our memory and where it fails us from time to time.

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Suggestibility

As its name suggests, the sin of suggestibility refers to our brain’s tendency to misremember the source of memories:

Suggestibility in memory refers to an individual’s tendency to incorporate misleading information from external sources — other people, written materials or pictures, even the media — into personal recollections. Suggestibility is closely related to misattribution in the sense that the conversion of suggestions into inaccurate memories must involve misattribution. However, misattribution often occurs in the absence of overt suggestion, making suggestibility a distinct sin of memory.

Suggestibility is such a difficult phenomenon because the memories we’ve pulled from outside sources seem as truly real as our own. Take the case of a “false veteran” which Schacter describes in the book:

On May 31, 2000, a front-page story in the New York Times described the baffling case of Edward Aly, a Korean War veteran who made up elaborate — but imaginary — stories about his battle exploits, including his involvement in a terrible massacre in which he had not actually participated. While weaving his delusional tale, Daly talked to veterans who had participated in the massacre and “reminded” them of his heroic deeds. His suggestions infiltrated their memories. “I know that Daly was there,” pleaded one veteran. “I know that. I know that.

The key word here is infiltrated. This brings to mind the wonderful Christoper Nolan movie Inception, about a group of experts who seek to infiltrate the minds of sleeping targets in order to change their memories. The movie is fictional but there is a subtle reality to the idea: With enough work, an idea that is merely suggested to us in one context can seem like our own idea or our own memory.

Take suggestive questioning, a problem with criminal investigations. The investigator talks to an eyewitness and, hoping to jog their memory, asks a series of leading questions, arriving that the answer he was hoping for. But is it genuine? Not always.

Schacter describes a psychology experiment wherein participants see a video of a robbery and then are fed misleading suggestions about the robbery soon after, such as the idea that the victim of the robbery was wearing a white apron. Amazingly, even when people could recognize that the apron idea was merely suggested to them, many people still regurgitated the suggested idea!

Previous experiments had shown that suggestive questions produce memory distortion by creating source memory problems like those in the previous chapter: participants misattribute information presented only in suggestive questions about the original videotape. [The psychologist Philip] Higham’s results provide an additional twist. He found that when people took a memory test just minutes after receiving the misleading question, and thus still correctly recalled that the “white apron” was suggested by the experimenter, they sometimes insisted nevertheless that the attendant wore a white apron in the video itself. In fact, they made this mistake just as often as people who took the memory test two days after receiving misleading suggestions, and who had more time to forget that the white apron was merely suggested. The findings testify to the power of misleading suggestions: they can create false memories of an event even when people recall that the misinformation was suggested.

The problem of overconfidence also plays a role in suggestion and memory errors. Take an experiment where subjects are shown a man entering a department store and then were told he murdered a security guard. After being shown a photo lineup (which did not contain the gunman), some were told they chose correctly and some were told they chose incorrectly. Guess which group was more confident and trustful of their memories afterwards?

It was, of course, the group that received reinforcement. Not only were they more confident, but they felt they had better command of the details of the gunman’s appearance, even though they were as wrong as the group that received no positive feedback. This has vast practical applications. (Consider a jury taking into account the testimony of a very confident eyewitness, reinforced by police with an agenda.)

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One more interesting idea in reference to suggestibility: Like the Dicaprio-led clan in the movie Inception, psychologists have been able to successfully “implant” false memories of childhood in many subjects based merely on suggestion alone. This should make you think carefully about what you think you remember about the distant past:

[The psychologist Ira] Hyman asked college students about various childhood experiences that, according to their parents, had actually happened, and also asked about a false event that, their parents confirmed, had never happened. For instance, students were asked: “When you were five you were at the wedding reception of some friends of the family and you were running around with some other kids, when you bumped into the table and spilled the punch bowl on the parents of the bride.” Participants accurately remembered almost all of the true events, but initially reported no memory of the false events.

However, approximately 20 to 40 percent of participants in different experimental conditions eventually came to describe some memory of the false event in later interviews. In one experiment, more than half of the participants who produced false memories describe them as “clear” recollections that included specific details of the central even, such as remembering exactly where or how one spilled the punch. Just under half reported “partial” false memories, which included some details but no specific memory of the central event.

Thus is the “power of the suggestion.”

The Sin of Bias

The problem of bias will be familiar to regular readers. In some form or another, we’re subject to mental biases every single day, most of which are benign, some of which are harmful, and most of which are not hard to understand. Biases specific to memory are so good to study because they’re so easy and natural to fall into. Because we trust our memory so deeply, they often go unquestioned. But we might want to be careful:

The sin of bias refers to distorting influences of our present knowledge, beliefs, feelings on new experiences, or our later memories of them. In the stifling psychological climate of 1984, the Ministry of Truth used memory as a pawn in the service of party rule. Much in the same manner, biases in remembering past experiences reveal how memory can serve as a pawn for the ruling masters of our cognitive systems.

There are four biases we’re subject to in this realm: Consistency and change bias, hindsight bias, egocentric bias, and stereotyping bias.

Consistency and Change Bias

The first is a consistency bias: We re-write our memories of the past based on how we feel in the present. In one experiment after another, this has been undoubtedly been proven true. It’s probably something of a coping mechanism: If we saw the past with complete accuracy, we might not be such happy individuals.

We re-write our memories of the past based on how we feel in the present. Click To Tweet

We often re-write the past so that it seems we’ve always felt like we feel now, that we always believed what we believe now:

This consistency bias has turned up in several different contexts. Recalling past experiences of pain, for instance, is powerfully influenced by current pain level. When patients afflicted by chronic pain are experiencing high levels of pain in the present, they are biased to recall similarly high levels of pain in the past; when present pain isn’t so bad, past pain experiences seem more benign, too. Attitudes towards political and social issues also reflect consistency bias. People whose views on political issues have changed over time often recall incorrectly pas attitudes as highly similar to present ones. In fact, memories of past political views are sometimes more closely related to present views than what they actually believed in the past.

Think about your stance five or ten years ago on some major issue like sentencing for drug-related crime. Can your recall specifically what you believed? For most people, they believe they have stayed consistent on the issue. But easily performed experiments show that a large percentage of people who think “all is the same” have actually changed their tune significantly over time. Such is the bias towards consistency.

This affects relationships fairly significantly: Schacter shows that our current feelings about our partner color our memories of our past feelings.

Consider a study that followed nearly four hundred Michigan couples through the first years of their marriage. In those couples who expressed growing unhappiness over the four years of the study, men mistakenly recalled the beginnings of their marriages as negative even though they said they were happy at the time. “Such biases can lead to a dangerous “downward spiral,” noted the researchers who conducted the study. “The worse you current view of your partner is, the worse your memories are, which only further confirms your negative attitudes.”

In other contexts, we sometimes lean in the other direction: We think things have changed more than they really have. We think the past was much better than it is today, or much worse that it is today.

Schacter discusses a twenty-year study done with a group of women between 1969 and 1989, assessing how they felt about their marriages throughout. Turns out, their recollections of the past were constantly on the move, but the false recollection did seem to serve a purpose: Keeping the marriage alive.

When reflecting back on the first ten years of their marriages, wives showed a change bias: They remembered their initial assessments as worse than they actually were. The bias made their present feelings seem an improvement by comparison, even though the wives actually felt more negatively ten years into the marriage than they had at the beginning. When they had been married for twenty years and reflected back on their second ten years of marriage, the women now showed a consistency bias: they mistakenly recalled that feelings from ten years earlier were similar to their present ones. In reality, however, they felt more negatively after twenty years of marriage than after then. Both types of bias helped women cope with their marriages. 

The purpose of all this is to reduce our cognitive dissonance: That mental discomfort we get when we have conflicting ideas. (“I need to stay married” / “My marriage isn’t working” for example.)

Hindsight Bias

We won’t go into hindsight bias too extensively, because we have covered it before and the idea is familiar to most. Simply put, once we know the outcome of an event, our memory of the past is forever altered. As with consistency bias, we the use the lens of the present to see the past. It’s the idea that we “knew it all along” — when we really didn’t.

A large part of hindsight bias has to do with the narrative fallacy and our own natural wiring in favor of causality. We really like to know why things happen, and when given a clear causal link in the present (Say, we hear our neighbor shot his wife because she cheated on him), the lens of hindsight does the rest (I always knew he was a bad guy!). In the process, we forget that we must not have thought he was such a bad guy, since we let him babysit our kids every weekend. That is hindsight bias. We’re all subject to it unless we start examining our past with more detail or keeping a written record.

Egocentric bias

The egocentric bias is our tendency to see the past in such a way that we, the rememberer, look better than we really are or really should. We are not neutral observers of our own past, we are instead highly biased and motivated to see ourselves in a certain light.

The self’s preeminent role in encoding and retrieval, combined with a powerful tendency for people to view themselves positively, creates fertile ground of memory biases that allow people to remember past experiences in a self-enhancing light. Consider, for example, college students who were led to believe that introversion is a desirable personality trait that predicts academic success, and then searched their memories for incidents in which they behaved in an introverted or extroverted manner. Compared with students who were led to believe that extroversion is a desirable trait, the introvert-success students more quickly generated memories in which they behaved like introverts than like extroverts. The memory search was biased by a desire to see the self positively, which led students to select past incidents containing the desired trait.

The egocentric bias occurs constantly and in almost any situation where it possibly can: It’s similar to what’s been called overconfidence in other arenas. We want to see ourselves in a positive light, and so we do. We mine our brain for evidence of our excellent qualities. We have positive maintaining illusions that keep our spirits up.

This is generally a good thing for our self-esteem, but as any divorced couple knows, it can also cause us to have a very skewed version of the past.

Bias from Stereotyping

In our series on the development of human personality, we discussed the idea of stereotyping as something human beings do constantly and automatically; the much-maligned concept is central to how we comprehend the world.

Stereotyping exists because it saves energy and space — it allows us to consolidate much of what we learn into categories with broadly accurate descriptions. As we learn new things, we either slot them into existing categories, create new categories, or slightly modify old categories (the one we like the least, because it requires the most work). This is no great insight.

But what is interesting is the degree to which stereotyping colors our memories themselves:

If I tell you that Julian, an artist, is creative, temperamental, generous, and fearless, you are more likely to recall the first two attributes, which fit the stereotype of an artist, than the latter two attributes, which do not. If I tell you that he is a skinhead, and list some of his characteristics, you’re more likely to remember that he is rebellious and aggressive than that he is lucky and modest. This congruity bias is especially likely to occur when people hold strong stereotypes about a particular group. A person with strong racial prejudices, for example, would be more likely to remember stereotypical features of an African American’s behavior than a less prejudiced person, and less likely to remember behavior that that don’t fit the stereotype.

Not only that, but when things happen which contradict our expectations, we are capable of distorting the past in such a way to make it come in line. When we try to remember a tale after we know how it ends, we’re more likely to distort the details of the story in such a way that the whole thing makes sense and fits our understanding of the world. This is related to the narrative fallacy and hindsight bias discussed above.

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The final sin which Schacter discusses in his book is Persistence, the often difficult reality that some memories, especially negative ones, persist a lot longer than we wish. We’re not going to cover it here, but suggest you check out the book in its entirety to get the scoop.

And with that, we’re going to wrap up our series on the human memory. Take what you’ve learned, digest it, and then keep pushing deeper in your quest to understand human nature and the world around you.

The Fundamental Attribution Error, or Why Predicting Behavior is So Hard


“Psychologists refer to the inappropriate use of dispositional explanation as
the fundamental attribution error, that is, explaining situation-induced behavior
as caused by enduring character traits of the agent.”
— Jon Elster

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The problem with any concept of “character” driving behavior is that “character” is pretty hard to pin down. We call someone “moral” or “honest,” we call them “courageous” or “naive” or any other number of names. The implicit connotation is that someone “honest” in one area will be “honest” in most others, or someone “moral” in one situation is going to be “moral” elsewhere.

Old-time folk psychology supports the notion, of course. As Jon Elster points out in his wonderful book Explaining Social Behavior, folk wisdom would have us believe that much of this “predicting and understanding behavior” thing is pretty darn easy! Simply ascertain character, and use that as a basis to predict or explain action.

People are often assumed to have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption. “Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.” “Who lies also steals.” “Who steals an egg will steal an ox.” “Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.” “Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.” If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behavior should be easy.

A single action will reveal the underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behavior on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself. The procedure is not tautological, as it would be if we took cheating on an exam as evidence of dishonesty and then used the trait of dishonesty to explain the cheating. Instead, it amounts to using cheating on an exam as evidence for a trait (dishonesty) that will also cause the person to be unfaithful to a spouse. If one accepts the more extreme folk theory that all virtues go together, the cheating might also be used to predict cowardice in battle or excessive drinking. 

This is a very natural and tempting way to approach the understanding of people. We like to think of actions that “speak volumes” about others’ character, thus using that as a basis to predict or understand their behavior in other realms.

For example, let’s say you were interviewing a financial advisor. He shows up on time, in a nice suit, and buys lunch. He says all the right words. Will he handle your money correctly?

Almost all of us would be led to believe he would, reasoning that his sharp appearance, timeliness, and generosity point towards his “good character”.

But what the study of history shows us is that appearances are flawed, and behavior in one context often does not have correlation to behavior in other contexts. Judging character becomes complex when we appreciate the situational nature of our actions. The U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was an arrogant bully and a liar who stole an election when he was young. He also fought like hell to pass the Civil Rights Act, something almost no other politician could have done.

Henry Ford standardized and streamlined the modern automobile and made it affordable to the masses, while paying “better than fair” wages to his employees and generally treating them well and with respect, something many “Titans” of business had trouble with in his day. He was also a notorious anti-Semite! If it’s true that “He who is moral in one respect is also moral in all respects,” then what are we to make of this?

Jon Elster has some other wonderful examples coming from the world of music, regarding impulsivity versus discipline:

The jazz musician Charlie Parker was characterized by a doctor who knew him as “a man living from moment to moment. A man living for the pleasure principle, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality arrested at an infantile level.” Another great jazz musician, Django Reinhardt, had an even more extreme present-oriented attitude in his daily life, never saving any of his substantial earnings, but spending them on whims or on expensive cars, which he quickly proceeding to crash. In many ways he was the incarnation of the stereotype of “the Gypsy.” Yet you do not become a musician of the caliber of Parker and Reinhardt if you live in the moment in all respects. Proficiency takes years of utter dedication and concentration. In Reinhardt’s case, this was dramatically brought out when he damaged his left hand severely in a fire and retrained himself so that he could achieve more with two fingers than anyone else with four. If these two musicians had been impulsive and carefree across the board — if their “personality” had been consistently “infantile” — they could never have become such consummate artists.

Once we realize this truth, it seems obvious. We begin seeing it everywhere. Dan Ariely wrote a book about situational dishonesty and cheating which we have written about before. Judith Rich Harris based her theory of child development on the idea that children do not behave the same elsewhere as they do at home, misleading parents into thinking they were molding their children. Good interviewing and hiring is a notoriously difficult problem because we are consistently misled into thinking that what we learn in the interview process is representative of the interviewee’s general competence. Books have been written about the Halo Effect, a similar idea that good behavior in one area creates a “halo” around all behavior.

The reason we see this everywhere is because it’s how the world works!

This basic truth is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, the belief that behavior in one context carries over with any consistency into other areas.

Studying the error leads us to conclude that we have a natural tendency to:

A. Over-rate some general consideration of “character” and,
B. Under-rate the “power of the situation”, and its direct incentives, to compel a variety of behavior.

Elster describes a social psychology experiment that effectively demonstrates how quickly any thought of “morality” can be lost in the right situation:

In another experiment, theology students were told to prepare themselves to give a brief talk in a nearby building. One-half were told to build the talk around the Good Samaritan parable(!), whereas the others were given a more neutral topic. One group was told to hurry since the people in the other building were waiting for them, whereas another was told that they had plenty of time. On their way to the other building, subjects came upon a man slumping in the doorway, apparently in distress. Among the students who were told they were late, only 10 percent offered assistance; in the other group, 63 percent did so. The group that had been told to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan was not more likely to behave as one. Nor was the behavior of the students correlated with answers to a questionnaire intended to measure whether their interest in religion was due to the desire for personal salvation or to a desire to help others. The situational factor — being hurried or not — had much greater explanatory power than any dispositional factor.

So with a direct incentive in front of them — not wanting to be late when people were waiting for them, which could cause shame — the idea of being a Good Samaritan was thrown right out the window! So much for good character.

What we need to appreciate is that, in the words of Elster, “Behavior is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.” A shy young boy on the playground might be the most outgoing and aggressive boy in his group of friends. A moral authority in the realm of a religious institution might well cheat on their taxes. A woman who treats her friends poorly might treat her family with reverence and care.

We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course. Elster refers to contingent response tendencies that would carry from situation to situation, but they tend to be specific rather than general. If we break down character into specific interactions between person and types of situations, we can understand things a little more accurately.

Instead of calling someone a “liar,” we might understand that they lie on their taxes but are honest with their spouse. Instead of calling someone a “hard worker,” we might come to understand that they drive hard in work situations, but simply cannot be bothered to work around the house. And so on. We should pay attention to the interplay between the situation, the incentives and the nature of the person, rather than just assuming that a broad  character trait applies in all situations.

This carries two corollaries:

A. As we learn to think more accurately, we get one step closer to understanding human nature as it really is. We can better understand the people with whom we coexist.

B. We might better understand ourselves! Imagine if you could be the rare individual whose positive traits truly did carry over into all, or at least all important, situations. You would be traveling an uncrowded road.

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Want More? Check out our ever-growing database of mental models.

20 Rules for a Knight: A Timeless Guide from 1483

“Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is a delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose. Happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself, a process, and an activity. It arises from curiosity and discovery. Seek pleasure and you will quickly discover the shortest path to suffering.”

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The quest to become a knight has occupied many over the years.

In 1483, Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke of Cornwall was among 323 killed at the Battle of Slaughter Bridge. Foreseeing this outcome, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his children in Cornish outlining the Rules for a Knight — the life lessons Sir Thomas wished to pass along to his four children.

The severely damaged letter was adapted and reconstructed by Ethan Hawke, after the family discovered it in the early 1970s in the basement of the family farm near Waynesville, Ohio after his great grandmother passed away.

Or, so the story goes.

The resulting book, Rules for a Knight — in reality a work of fiction — began over a decade ago. Why a book about knights? Hawke explains:

“I’ve just always loved the idea of knighthood,” he said. “It makes being a good person cool. Or, aspiring to be a good person cool.”

And so Hawke started applying the chivalry to his own household:

My wife was reading a book about step-parenting, and this book was talking about the value of rules, so we started saying, well, what are the rules of our house? And you start with the really mundane, like eight-o’clock bedtime, all that kind of stuff. And then, invariably, you start asking yourself, well, what do we really believe in? So I started riffing on this idea of ‘rules for a knight.’ Like, what does the king decree, you know? I wrote it out—the idea was we were going to put it on the wall, in calligraphy. Like, these are the rules.

The work stands alone as a blueprint of civilized growth and self-improvement, the path to becoming a humble, strong, and reliable gentleman (or lady). The ideas mostly come from “other knights,” including Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Mother Teresa, as Hawke credits them on the acknowledgment page.

“Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one.” Click To Tweet

Rules for a Knight

“Tonight,” Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawkes of Cornwall begins, “I will share with you some of the more valuable stories, events, and moments of my life so that somewhere deep in the recesses of your imagination these lessons might continue on and my experiences will live to serve a purpose for you.”

20 Rules for a Knight

1. Solitude

Create time alone with yourself. When seeking the wisdom and clarity of your own mind, silence is a helpful tool. The voice of our spirit is gentle and cannot be heard when it has to compete with others. Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul. In silence, we can sense eternity sleeping inside us.

2. Humility

Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.

3. Gratitude

The only intelligent response to the ongoing gift of life is gratitude. For all that has been, a knight says, “Thank you.” For all that is to come, a knight says, “Yes!”

4. Pride

Never pretend you are not a knight or attempt to diminish yourself because you deem it will make others more comfortable. We show others the most respect by offering the best of ourselves.

5. Cooperation

Each one of us is walking our own road. We are born at specific times, in specific places, and our challenges are unique. As knights, understanding and respecting our distinctiveness is vital to our ability to harness our collective strength. The use of force may be necessary to protect in an emergency, but only justice, fairness, and cooperation can truly succeed in leading men. We must live and work together as brothers or perish together as fools.

6. Friendship

The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.

7. Forgiveness

Those who cannot easily forgive will not collect many friends. Look for the best in others.

8. Honesty

A dishonest tongue and a dishonest mind waste time, and therefore waste our lives. We are here to grow and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.

9. Courage

Anything that gives light must endure burning.

10. Grace

Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.

11. Patience

There is no such thing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A hurried mind is an addled mind; it cannot see clearly or hear precisely; it sees what it wants to see, or hears what it is afraid to hear, and misses much. A knight makes time his ally. There is a moment for action, and with a clear mind that moment is obvious.

12. Justice

There is only one thing for which a knight has no patience: injustice. Every true knight fights for human dignity at all times.

13. Generosity

You were born owning nothing and with nothing you will pass out of this life. Be frugal and you can be generous.

14. Discipline

In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home.The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.

15. Dedication

Ordinary effort, ordinary result. Take steps each day to better follow these rules. Luck is the residue of design. Be steadfast. The anvil outlasts the hammer.

16. Speech

Do not speak ill of others. A knight does not spread news that he does not know to be certain, or condemn things that he does not understand.

17. Faith

Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.

18. Equality

Every knight holds human equality as an unwavering truth. A knight is never present when men or women are being degraded or compromised in any way, because if a knight were present, those committing the hurtful acts or words would be made to stop.

19. Love

Love is the end goal. It is the music of our lives. There is no obstacle that enough love cannot move.

20. Death

Life is a long series of farewells; only the circumstances should surprise us. A knight concerns himself with gratitude for the life he has been given. He does not fear death, for the work one knight begins, others may finish.

The rest of Rules For a Knight goes on to explore these ideas in greater detail. Despite its fiction status, the book is a timeless meditation on self-improvement and what it means to be a parent.

20 Rules for a Knight: a Timeless Guide from 1483 Click To Tweet

The Many Ways Our Memory Fails Us (Part 2)

(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)

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In part one, we began a conversation about the trappings of the human memory, using Daniel Schacter’s excellent The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide. We covered transience — the loss of memory due to time — and absent-mindedness — memories that were never encoded at all or were not available when needed. Let’s keep going with a couple more whoppers: Blocking and Misattribution.

Blocking

Blocking is the phenomenon when something is indeed encoded in our memory and should be easily available in the given situation, but simply will not come to mind. We’re most familiar with blocking as the always frustrating “It’s on the tip of my tongue!

Unsurprisingly, blocking occurs most frequently when it comes to peoples’ names and occurs more frequently as we get older:

Twenty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds kept diaries for a month in which they recorded spontaneously occurring retrieval blocks that were accompanied by the “tip of the tongue” sensation. Blocking occurred occasionally for the names of objects (for example, algae) and abstract words (for example, idiomatic). In all three groups, however, blocking occurred most frequently for proper names, with more blocks for people than for other proper names such as countries or cities. Proper name blocks occurred more frequently in the seventy-year-olds than in either of the other two groups.

This is not the worst sin our memory commits — excepting the times when we forget an important person’s name (which is admittedly not fun), blocking doesn’t cause the terrible practical results some of the other memory issues cause. But the reason blocking occurs does tells us something interesting about memory, something we intuitively know from other domains: We have a hard time learning things by rote or by force. We prefer associations and connections to form strong, lasting, easily available memories.

Why are names blocked from us so frequently, even more than objects, places, descriptions, and other nouns? For example, Schacter mentions experiments in which researchers show that we more easily forget a man’s name than his occupationeven if they’re the same word! (Baker/baker or Potter/potter, for example.)

It’s because relative to a descriptive noun like “baker,” which calls to mind all sorts of connotations, images, and associations, a person’s name has very little attached to it. We have no easy associations to make — it doesn’t tell us anything about the person or give us much to hang our hat on. It doesn’t really help us form an image or impression. And so we basically remember it by rote, which doesn’t always work that well.

Most models of name retrieval hold that activation of phonological representations [sound associations] occurs only after activation of conceptual and visual representations. This idea explains why people can often retrieve conceptual information about an object or person whom they cannot name, whereas the reverse does not occur. For example, diary studies indicate that people frequently recall a person’s occupation without remembering his name, but no instances have been documented in which a name is recalled without any conceptual knowledge about the person. In experiments in which people named pictures of famous individuals, participants who failed to retrieve the name “Charlton Heston” could often recall that he was an actor. Thus, when you block on the name “John Baker” you may very well recall that he is an attorney who enjoys golf, but it is highly unlikely that you would recall Baker’s name and fail to recall any of his personal attributes.

A person’s name is the weakest piece of information we have about them in our people-information lexicon, and thus the least available at any time, and the most susceptible to not being available as needed. It gets worse if it’s a name we haven’t needed to recall frequently or recently, as we all can probably attest to. (This also applies to the other types of words we block on less frequently — objects, places, etc.)

The only real way to avoid blocking problems is to create stronger associations when we learn names, or even re-encode names we already know by increasing their salience with a vivid image, even a silly one. (If you ever meet anyone named Baker…you know what to do.)

But the most important idea here is that information gains salience in our brain based on what it brings to mind. 

Whether or not blocking occurs in the sense implied by Freud’s idea of repressed memories, Schacter is non-committal about — it seems the issue was not, at the time of writing, settled.

Misattribution

The memory sin of misattribution has fairly serious consequences. Misattribution happens all the time and is a peculiar memory sin where we do remember something, but that thing is wrong, or possibly not even our own memory at all:

Sometimes we remember events that never happened, misattributing speedy processing of incoming information or vivid images that spring to mind, to memories of past events that did not occur. Sometimes we recall correctly what happened, but misattribute it to the wrong time and place. And at other times misattribution operates in a different direction: we mistakenly credit a spontaneous image or thought to our own imagination, when in reality we are recalling it–without awareness–from something we read or heard.

The most familiar, but benign, experience we’ve all had with misattribution is the curious case of deja vu. As of the writing of his book, Schacter felt there was no convincing explanation for why deja vu occurs, but we know that the brain is capable of thinking it’s recalling an event that happened previously, even if it hasn’t.

In the case of deja vu, it’s simply a bit of an annoyance. But the misattribution problem causes more serious problems elsewhere.

The major one is eyewitness testimony, which we now know is notoriously unreliable. It turns out that when eyewitnesses claim they “know what they saw!” it’s unlikely they remember as well as they claim. It’s not their fault and it’s not a lie — you do think you recall the details of a situation perfectly well. But your brain is tricking you, just like deja vu. How bad is the eyewitness testimony problem? It used to be pretty bad.

…consider two facts. First, according to estimates made in the late 1980s, each year in the United States more than seventy-five thousand criminal trials were decided on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Second, a recent analysis of forty cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that thirty-six of them (90 percent) involved mistaken eyewitness identification. There are no doubt other such mistakes that have not been rectified.

What happens is that, in any situation where our memory stores away information, it doesn’t have the horsepower to do it with complete accuracy. There are just too many variables to sort through. So we remember the general aspects of what happened, and we remember some details, depending on how salient they were.

We recall that we met John, Jim, and Todd, who were all part of the sales team for John Deere. We might recall that John was the young one with glasses, Jim was the older bald one, and Todd talked the most. We might remember specific moments or details of the conversation which stuck out.

But we don’t get it all perfectly, and if it was an unmemorable meeting, with the transience of time, we start to lose the details. The combination of the specifics and the details is a process called memory binding, and it’s often the source of misattribution errors.

Let’s say we remember for sure that we curled our hair this morning. All of our usual cues tell us that we did — our hair is curly, it’s part of our morning routine, we remember thinking it needed to be done, etc. But…did we turn the curling iron off? We remember that we did, but is that yesterday’s memory or today’s?

This is a memory binding error. Our brain didn’t sufficiently “link up” the curling event and the turning off of the curler, so we’re left to wonder. This binding issue leads to other errors, like the memory conjunction error, where sometimes the binding process does occur, but it makes a mistake. We misattribute the strong familiarity:

Having met Mr. Wilson and Mr. Albert during your business meeting, you reply confidently the next day when an associate asks you the name of the company vice president: “Mr. Wilbert.” You remembered correctly pieces of the two surnames but mistakenly combined them into a new one. Cognitive psychologists have developed experimental procedures in which people exhibit precisely these kinds of erroneous conjunctions between features of different words, pictures, sentences, or even faces. Thus, having studied spaniel and varnish, people sometimes claim to remember Spanish.

What’s happening is a misattribution. We know we saw the syllables Span- and –nish and our memory tells us we must have heard Spanish. But we didn’t.

Back to the eyewitness testimony problem, what’s happening is we’re combining a general familiarity with a lack of specific recall, and our brain is recombining those into a misattribution. We recall a tall-ish man with some sort of facial hair, and then we’re shown 6 men in a lineup, and one is tall-ish with facial hair, and our brain tells us that must be the guy. We’re make a relative judgment: Which person here is closest to what I think I saw? Unfortunately, like the Spanish/varnish issue, we never actually saw the person we’ve identified as the perp.

None of this occurs with much conscious involvement, of course. It’s happening subconsciously, which is why good procedures are needed to overcome the problem. In the case of suspect lineups, the solution is to show the witness each member, one after another, and have them give a thumbs up or thumbs down immediately. This takes away the relative comparison and makes us consciously compare the suspect in front of us with our memory of the perpetrator.

The good thing about this solving this error is that people can be encouraged to search their memory more carefully. But it’s far from foolproof, even if we’re getting a very strong indication that we remember something.

And what helps prevent us from making too many errors is something Schacter calls the distinctiveness heuristic. If a distinctive thing supposedly happened, we usually reason we’d have a good memory of it. And usually, this is a very good heuristic to have. (Remember, salience always encourages memory formation.) As we discussed in Part One, a salient artifact gives us something to tie a memory to. If I meet someone wearing a bright rainbow-colored shirt, I’m a lot more likely to recall some details about them, simply because they stuck out.

***

As an aside, misattribution allows us one other interesting insight into the human brain: Our “people information” remembering is a specific, distinct module, one that can falter on its own, without harming any other modules. Schacter discusses a man with a delusion that many of the normal people around him were film stars. He even misattributed made-up famous-sounding names (like Sharon Sugar) to famous people, although he couldn’t put his finger on who they were.

But the man did not falsely recognize other things. Made up cities or made up words did not trip up his brain in the strange way people did. This (and other data) tells us that our ability to recognize people is a distinct “module” our brain uses, supporting one of Judith Rich Harris’s modules of human personality that we’ve discussed: The “people information lexicon” we develop throughout our lives.

***

One final misattribution is something called cryptomnesia — the opposite of deja vu. It’s when we think we recognize something as new and novel when we have indeed seen it before. Accidental plagiarizing can even result from cryptomnesia. (Try telling that to your school teachers!) Cryptomnesia falls into the same bucket as other misattributions in that we fail to recollect the source of information we’re recalling — the information and event where we first remembered it are not bound together properly. Let’s say we “invent” the melody to a song which already exists. The melody sounds wonderful and familiar, so we like it. But we mistakenly think it’s new.

In the end, Schacter reminds us to think carefully about the memories we “know” are true, and to try to remember specifics when possible:

We often need to sort out ambiguous signals, such as feelings of familiarity or fleeting images, that may originate in specific past experiences, or arise from subtle influences in the present. Relying on judgment and reasoning to come up with plausible attributions, we sometimes go astray.  When misattribution combines with another of memory’s sins — suggestibility — people can develop detailed and strongly held recollections of complex events that never occurred.

And with that, we will leave it here for now. Next time we’ll delve into suggestibility and bias, two more memory sins with a range of practical outcomes.

Andy Grove and the Value of Facing Reality

“People who have no emotional stake in a decision
can see what needs to be done sooner.”
— Andy Grove

***

What do you do when you wake up one day and realize that reality has changed, and you will either change with it or perish? Here’s one story of someone who did it successfully: Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel Corp.

Here’s the long and short: As late as 1981, Intel Corp had massive dominance of the worldwide semiconductor business. They made memory chips for computer hard drives, and they owned about 60% of the global trade in a business that was growing in leaps and bounds. The personal computer revolution was taking off and the world was going digital slowly, year by year. It was the right business to be in, and Intel owned it. They got designed into the IBM PC, one of the first popular personal computers, in 1981. Life was good.

The problem was that everyone else wanted into the same business. New companies were popping up every day in the United States, and in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, Japanese semiconductor manufacturers started nipping at Intel’s heels. They were competing on price and fast availability. Slowly, Intel realized its products were becoming commodities. By 1988, Japanese manufacturers had over 50% of the global market.

What did Intel do in response?

At first, as most all of us do, they tried to cope with the old reality. They tried running faster on a treadmill to nowhere. This is the first true difficulty of facing a new reality: Seeing the world as it truly is. The temptation is always to stick to the old paradigm.

What Intel really wanted was to be able to stay in the old business and make money at it. Andy Grove describes some of the tactics they tried to this end in his great book Only the Paranoid Survive, written in 1996:

We tried a lot of things. We tried to focus on a niche of the memory market segment, we tried to invent special-purpose memories called valued-added designs, we introduced more advanced technologies and built memories with them. What we were desperately trying to do was earn a premium for our product in the marketplace as we couldn’t match the Japanese downward pricing spiral. There was a saying at Intel at that time: “If we do well we get ‘2x’ [twice] the price of Japanese memories, but what good does it do if ‘X’ gets smaller and smaller?

[…]

We had meetings and more meetings, bickering and arguments, resulting in nothing but conflicting proposals. There were those who proposed what they called a “go for it” strategy: “Let’s build a gigantic factory dedicated to producing memories and nothing but memories, and let’s take on the Japanese.” Others proposed that we should get really clever and use an avant-garde technology, “go for it” but in a technological rather than a manufacturing sense and build something the Japanese producers couldn’t build. Others were still clinging to the idea that we could come up with special-purpose memories, an increasingly unlikely possibility as memories became a uniform worldwide commodity. Meanwhile, as the debates raged, we just went on losing more and more money.

As Grove started waking up to the reality that the old way of doing business wasn’t going to work anymore, he allowed himself the thought that Intel would leave the business that had buttered its bread for so long.

And with this came the second difficulty of facing a new reality: Being the first to see it means you’ll face tremendous resistance from those who are not there yet. 

Of course, Grove faced this in spades at Intel. Notice how he describes the ties to the old reality: Religious conviction.

The company had a couple of beliefs that were as strong as religious dogmas. Both of them had to do with the importance of memories as the backbone of our manufacturing and sales activities. One was that memories were our “technology drivers.” What this phrase meant was that we always developed and refined our technologies on our memory products first because they were easier to test. Once the technology had been debugged on memories, we would apply it to microprocessors and other products. The other belief was the “full product-line” dogma. According to this, our salesmen needed a full product line to do a good job in front of our customers; if they didn’t have a full product line, the customer would prefer to do business with our competitors who did.

Given the strength of these beliefs, an open-minded, rational discussion about getting out of memories was practically impossible. What were we going to use for technology drivers? How were our salespeople going to do their jobs when they had an incomplete product family?

Eventually, after taking half-measures and facing all kinds of resistance from the homeostatic system that is a large organization, Grove was able to convince the executive team it was time to move on from the memory business and go whole-hog into microprocessors, a business where Intel could truly differentiate themselves and build a formidable competitive position.

It’s here that Grove hits on a very humbling point about facing reality: We’re often the last ones to see things the way they truly are! We’re sitting on a train oblivious to the fact that it’s moving at 80 miles per hour, but anyone sitting outside the train watches it whiz right by! This is the value of learning to see the world through the eyes of others.

After all manner of gnashing of teeth, we told our sales force to notify our memory customers. This was one of the great bugaboos: How would our customers react? Would they stop doing business with us altogether now that we were letting them down? In fact, the reaction was, for all practical purposes, a big yawn. Our customers knew that we were not a very large factor in the market and they had half figured that we would get out; most of them had already made arrangements with other suppliers.

In fact, when we informed them of the decision, some of them reacted with the comment, “It sure took you a long time.” People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner. 

This is where the rubber hits on the road. As Grove mentions regarding Intel, you must train yourself to see your situation from the perspective of an outsider.

“People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done… Click To Tweet

This is why companies often bring outside management or consulting organizations in to help them — they feel only someone sitting outside the train can see how fast it’s moving! But what if you could have for yourself that kind of objectivity? It takes a passionate interest in reality and a commitment to being open to change. In business especially, the Red Queen effect means that change is a constant, not a variable.

And the story of Andy Grove shows that it can be done. Despite the myriad of problems discussed above, not only did Grove realize how fast the train was moving, but he got all of his people off, and onto a new and better train! By the late ’80s Intel pushed into microprocessing and out of memories, and became one of the great growth companies of the 1990s in a brand new business. (And he did it without bringing in outside help.)

What it took was the courage to face facts and act on them: As hard as it must have been, the alternative was death.

Here’s what Grove took from the experience:

Change is pain

I learned how small and helpless you feel when facing a force that’s “10X” larger than what you are accustomed to. I experienced the confusion that engulfs you when something fundamental changes in the business, and I felt the frustration that comes when the things that worked for you in the past no longer do any good. I learned how desperately you want to run from dealing with even describing a new reality to close associates. And I experienced the exhilaration that comes from a set-jawed commitment to a new direction, unsure as that may be.

A new reality doesn’t happen overnight

In this case, the Japanese started beating us in the memory business in the early eighties. Intel’s performance started to slump when the entire industry weakened in mid-1984. The conversation with Gordon Moore that I described occurred in mid-1985. It took until mid-1986 to implement our exit from memories. Then it took another year before we returned to profitability. Going through the whole strategic inflection point took us a total of three years.

The new reality may be preferable to the old one

I also learned that strategic inflection points, painful as they are for all participants, provide an opportunity to break out of a plateau and catapult to a higher level of achievement. Had we not changed our business strategy, we would have been relegated to an immensely tough economic existence and, for sure, a relatively insignificant role in our industry. By making a forceful move, things turned out far better for us.

So here is your opportunity: When a new reality awaits, don’t go at it timidly. Take it head on and make it not only as good, but better than the old reality. Don’t be the boy in the well, looking up and seeing only the sides of the well. Take the time to see the world around you as it truly is.

***

Still Interested? Check out Grove’s classic book on strategic inflection points, Only the Paranoid Survive. For another interesting business case study, read the interesting story of how IBM first built its monster 20th century competitive advantage.

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Mental Model: Multiplicative Systems

Let’s run through a little elementary algebra. Try to do it in your head: What’s 1,506,789 x 9,809 x 5.56 x 0?

Hopefully you didn’t have to whip out the old TI-84 to solve that one. It’s a zero.

This leads us to a mental model called Multiplicative Systems, and understanding it can get to the heart of a lot of issues.

The Weakest Link in the Chain

Suppose you were trying to become the best basketball player in the world. You’ve got the following things going for you:

1. God-given talent. You’re 6’9″, quick, skillful, can leap out of the building, and have been the best player in a competitive city since you can remember.

2. Support. You live in a city that reveres basketball and you’re raised by parents who care about your goals.

3. A proven track record. You were the player of the year in a very competitive Division 1 college conference.

4. A clear path forward. You’re selected as the second overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.

Sounds like you have a shot, right? As good as anyone could have, right? What would you put the odds at of this person becoming one of the better players in the world? Pretty high?

Let’s add one more piece of information:

5. You’ve developed a cocaine habit.

What are your odds now?

This little exercise isn’t an academic one, it’s the sad case of Leonard “Len” Bias, a young basketball prodigy who died of a cocaine overdose after being selected to play in the NBA for the Boston Celtics in 1986. Many call Bias the best basketball player who never played professionally.

What the story of Len Bias illustrates so well is the truth that anything times zero must still be zero, no matter how large the string of numbers preceding it. In some facets of life, all of your hard work, dedication to improvement, and good fortune may still be worth nothing if there is a weak link in the chain.

Something all engineers learn very early on is that a system is no stronger than its weakest component. Take, for example, the case of a nuclear power plant. We have a very good understanding of how to make the nuclear power plant quite safe, nearly indestructible, which it must be considering the magnitude of a failure.

But in reality, what is the weakest link in the chain for most nuclear power plants? The human beings running them. We’re part of the system! And since we’ve yet to perfect the human being, we have yet to perfect the nuclear power plant. How could it be otherwise?

An additive system does not work this way. In an additive system, each component adds on to one another to create the final outcome. Going back to algebra, let’s say our equation was additive rather than multiplicative: 1,506,789 plus 9,809 plus 5.56 plus 0. The answer is 1,516,603.56 — still a pretty big number!

Think of an additive system as something like a great Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve got a great turkey, some whipped potatoes, a mass of stuffing, and a lump of homemade cranberry sauce, and you’re hanging with your family. Awesome!

Let’s say the potatoes get burnt in the oven, and they’re inedible. Problem? Sure, but dinner still works out just fine. Someone shows up with a pie for dessert? Great! But it won’t change the dinner all that much.

The interaction of the parts make the dinner range from good to great. Take some parts away or add new ones in, and you get a different outcome, but not a binary, win/lose one. The meal still happens. Additive systems and multiplicative systems react differently when components are added or taken away.

Most businesses, for example, operate in a multiplicative system. But they too often think they’re operating in additive ones: Ever notice how some businesses will add one feature on top of another to their products but fail at basic customer service, so you leave, never to return? That’s a business that thinks it’s in an additive system when they really need to be resolving the big fat zero in the middle of the equation instead of adding more stuff.

***

Financial systems are, of course, multiplicative. General Motors, founded in 1908 by William Durant and C.S. Mott, came to dominate the American car market to the tune of 50% market share through a series of brilliant innovations and management practices, and was for many years the dominant and most admirable corporation in America. Even today, after more than a century of competition, no American carmaker produces more automobiles than General Motors.

And yet, the original shareholders of GM ended up with a zero in 2008 as the company went into bankruptcy due to years of financial mismanagement. It didn’t matter than they had several generations of leadership: All of that becomes naught in a multiplicative system.

***

On a smaller scale, take the case of a young corporate climber who feels they just can’t get ahead. They seem to have all their ducks in a row: great resume, great background, great experience…the problem is that they suck at dealing with other people and treat others like stepping stones. That’s a zero that can negate all of the big numbers preceding it. The rest doesn’t matter.

And so we arrive at the “must be true” conclusion that understanding when you’re in an additive system versus a multiplicative system, and which components need absolute reliability for the system to work, is a critical model to have in your head. Multiplicative thinking is a model related to the greater idea of systems thinking, another mental model well worth acquiring.

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Multiplicative Systems is another Farnam Street Mental Model.  

Multiplicative Systems, from the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models is worth reading. Click To Tweet