Memories Lie

[Academic philosophers] Russ and I have presented our joint work in a number of venues now … and normally when we do so, … we set up a random beeper … When the beep sounds, each audience member is to think about what was going on in her last undisturbed moment of inner experience before the beep. We then use a random number generator to select an audience member to report on her experience. We interview her right there, discussing her experience and the method with the audience and each other. We’ll do this maybe three times in a three-hour session.

As a result, we now have a couple dozen samples of reported inner experience during our academic talks, and the most striking thing we’ve found is that people rarely report thinking about the talk. … Most audience members, listening to most academic talks, spend most of their time with some distraction or other at the forefront of their stream of experience. They may not remember this fact because when they think back on their experience of a talk, what is salient to them are those rare occasions when they did make a novel connection or think up an interesting objection.

(I think the same is true of sex thoughts. People often say they spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but when you beep them they very rarely report it. It’s probably that our sex thoughts, though rare, are much more frequently remembered than other thoughts and so are dramatically overrepresented in retrospective memory.)  (more)

We too easily assume we know what we have been doing.  Most who think they are obsessed with sex, or that they pay attention to academic talks, are wrong.  While understanding its content is what you are supposed to do at an academic talk, attending is probably more about showing your dedication and monitoring.  Similarly, our society places a high premium on sex, and looks down on the asexual.  In both cases our bias seems to be to assume we have doing whatever would make the best impression if it were true.  If you can be this mistaken about stuff this basic, how wrong could you be about other things?

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  • R.A.W.

    Some of us travel the world with a false identity, set up small terrorist cabals and underground boxing rings while plotting to blow up the world’s banking record server farms and have no retrospective memory of the matter at all.

    Spooky, huh?

  • azmyth

    I would guess that thinking about sex would be under-reported. In an academic setting, people are not used to talking about sex and may lie to avoid talking about an embarrassing subject in front of a ton of strangers, and worse, people they want to impress.

  • y81

    What if you were thinking about having sex (with the lecturer or a nearby audience member) during the lecture? I do that often, but if my beeper went off, I would never admit it.

  • “Similarly, our society places a high premium on sex, and looks down on the asexual.”

    You really think we find sex obsession admirable? I do not think saying “I think about sex a lot” will impress my friends.

  • bruce

    Human memory and self-praise are inseparable. Remember that, you clever fellow.

    And in this sense, animals are human

  • Doug S.

    When you’re paying attention to a speaker, you’re usually listening and not “thinking” as such. But, yeah, point understood.

  • Robin, I think you consistently over-estimate people’s lack of self-awareness. Self-deception on these matters is real, but who in academia hasn’t at some point thought “I’m not getting anything out of this talk, I’d leave now if I weren’t worried about being rude, so I’ll just daydream until this damn thing is over”?

  • azmyth, y81, the sex results didn’t require folks to admit something to a larger audience.

    Robert, people wouldn’t be impressed if you said you never think about sex either. Explicit statements of any sort on the subject look bad.

    • Jess Riedel

      Robert, people wouldn’t be impressed if you said you never think about sex either.

      I’ve heard people say something like “I think about sex only rarely” when the topic comes up (say, if someone else brought up the every-7-seconds myth) with a similar status to “I hardly watch any TV”.

  • Jack (LW)

    Similarly, our society places a high premium on sex, and looks down on the asexual.

    This just isn’t true. Most people in an academic setting are too embarrassed to admit to thinking about sex unless the subject is explicitly about sex. Admitting you think about sex a lot makes you seem gross and creepy. It is more likely that the over-reporting of sex thoughts is due to those thoughts being more interesting and enjoyable, and therefore more memorable than more mundane thoughts. Thus when I look back on the last hour and ponder what I thought about the sex thoughts will stick out while the “I don’t like the color of that poster” will be forgotten.

  • Proper Dave

    Maybe you should read Dennett’s stuff? Consciousness in many cases isn’t even there.

    You obviously forget most experiences, only “important” or shocking stuff is remembered or associations. This is even worse for dreams almost all of them is forgotten, except the most notable ones.

    Memory does not lie or is inaccurate, it is incomplete and not a reliable tool for past experiences.
    That is why we have notepads and recording equipment!

    • “Consciousness isn’t even there”

      ROFLMAO. Good one.

    • Proper Dave

      Deliberate and ahem conscious manipulation of quotations…
      I’m not playing.
      Have a nice day now.

  • Edward

    Maybe you go to an academic thought for insights, and most of the time at the talk they aren’t being insightful, but you start to pay attention when it’s more insightful.

  • Jeet

    I mostly go to academic talks if there is food/drink available before or after the talk . Generally; the synopsis or online papers are enough to give a good idea of what the talk is about.

  • Also a huge issue in academic conferences is self-deceit.

    People don’t like to admit they are just sitting in the talk to serve social ends, e.g., show respect for the speaker, maintain norms that will keep others coming to their talks and thus help gain them later jobs (you can be impressed by people’s intelligent even if you don’t have much interest in hearing the details of their work). Also it’s about avoiding the slippery slope of ‘well there is no harm if I just miss one talk.’

    While there are some people who do get a great deal from the talks I think a huge percent of attendees would be better served spending the time skimming the papers then attending a cocktail party with the other attendees where they can converse and ask questions.