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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