A few years ago Richard Saunders visited Sceptic School and gave the students a false word memory test. The test involves memorising words from a list then writing down as many as you can. Each word is related to a theme in some way. The idea of the test is to see how many people write down the thematic word. The catch is however, that word never appeared in the original list. When we see the words ‘cake’, ‘sugar’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘jam’, our brains immediately think ‘sweet’. A lot of students wound up writing ‘sweet’ in their list of remembered words.
Today I tried the test myself. Taking a hint from the work of Michael A. Stadler et. al., I used a list of words that reportedly had the highest chance of creating a false memory. Before I spoil anything, give the test below a try (click the play button to begin) and see how many words you can remember.
Did you write down the word ‘window’? About 50% of my students did. Does that mean that they’re stupid? Not at all. It just means that their memories are as fallible as everybody else’s. When we are remembering, the story telling part of our brain is actually doing a lot of work as well. Often we are simply creating a story to suit what we think our memory should contain.
The experiment led into a great discussion about human error, the use of eye-witnesses in court and the idea that if a lot of our memories are false, how real are we as people? Nothing like hitting the kids with a bit of existential dread.
Whenever I drive anywhere I find myself too scared to admit that I’m having a good trip. If I dare to utter (or even think) a phrase like “Man, I haven’t hit a red light all drive” I just know that I’ll get stuck at the next intersection. The same is true if I think about how quiet a class is being. As soon as the thought occurs to me the kids start playing up like a pack of mind-reading hooligans.
Why do we think this? Do we really believe that the universe cares about what we say? Do we think that a vicious entity lurks about, just waiting for us to comment on how good life is? It is an unintentionally arrogant thing to believe. We have a natural tendency to believe that we matter. We want to think that the universe is aware of our existence, even if it means that it’s out to get us. For the same reason that many people believe in conspiracy theories, we would prefer a cruel yet organised world rather than a random one.
Since becoming a born-again sceptic I have made a conscious effort to stop doing this. I now delight in vocalising how smoothly things are going without fear of cosmic reprisal. I turn gleefully to the passengers in the car and loudly praise the run of green lights I’ve just experienced. Has this made any kind of difference in my life?
Yes, a little.
It certainly hasn’t affected how lucky I am. Red-lights still happen and students still lose control. Possibly my positive outlook has had an affect. Richard Wiseman suggests that people who think they are lucky often experience greater luck so perhaps I am experiencing something similar. The big change that I’ve noticed is how less worried I am about having bad things happen. It’s almost like by forcing myself to realise that silly things like jinxes don’t exist, then random fluctuations of luck have nothing to do with my behaviour. It’s like being told that you can eat as much junk food as you want without it affecting your weight.
As an experiment, my sceptikids will be going out of their way to jinx things. Comments like “I bet this test will be really easy” and “what’s the worst that can happen?” will be heard for the next fortnight in an effort to see how much better, worse or unchanged their lives get.
My prediction is that they will experience the same things I did. If not, at least I can’t be blamed for giving them bad luck.
On a side note, I haven’t posted in a very long time but the club is still running strong. Due to commitments which include other lunchtime activities, more involved classes and a new baby I have had to scale down to once a fortnight. I have a great new batch of junior students who are coming along regularly to learn about critical thinking and scepticism plus my regulars who like to throw their two-cents in every now and again.