Italians can remember fewer numbers.

Italians can remember fewer numbers.

Italians can remember fewer numbers.

When you try to remember something like a phone number you have to keep repeating it to yourself or it disappears. This is because the part of your working memory which remembers sounds can only hold those sounds for a few seconds.

Psychologists call that part of your brain the phonological store. Each time you recite the phone number to yourself you are putting those digits back into the store one by one (this is called the phonological loop). However, the phonological store only lasts a few seconds. If the number takes longer to recite than the store lasts, the final digits will have dropped out of memory before you can get to them to put them back in.

For example, if you hear or read the first 10 digits of pi after the decimal place and try to remember them, you will begin repeating them to yourself… one four one five nine two six five three five. It might take you five seconds to recite them. But, if your phonological store only lasts four seconds, the last couple of digits will drop out of your phonological store before you can articulate them to yourself. The first eight digits have been put back in the store (where they will each remain for another 4 seconds unless you once again renew them by articulating them again before they disappear), but the last two are gone.

Italians have longer words for numbers than we do in English. Most digits have two syllables. Those ten digits of pi would be: uno quattro uno cinque nove due seis cinque tre cinque. In this example that would mean about 18 syllables instead of the 10 syllables required in English.

It is important to remember that the phonological store’s limitation is time rather than number of articles. 18 syllables are of course going to take longer to articulate than 10, so it is likely that an Italian would only remember approximately the first five digits rather than the first eight of them.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.


Photo Credit: Allie_Caulfield Flickr via Compfight cc

Judges should not play with dice

Judges should not play with dice

Judges, if they were allowed to play with dice, could be influenced by those dice when deciding on prison terms. I will explain how, but first I want to ask you a question:

Do you think there are more or fewer than 15 countries in Africa? Think about it for a moment. More than 15 countries in Africa or fewer?

Having considered that, now take a guess at how many countries there are.

There are actually five times eleven countries in Africa (if you include Western Sahara, which actually is not yet recognised by the UN). I have not written the number properly because I didn’t want you to see it by mistake before making your guess. I’m hoping that your maths will get you there.

I expect most people reading this will have guessed a number considerably under 55. Maybe 30 or 40. They were probably influenced by my asking if there were more or fewer than 15.

When having to make an estimate of any sort of quantity, people have a ballpark range within which they would expect the answer to be. When I asked about the number 15, you will probably have decided that it was too low. However, when you were subsequently asked to make an estimate, you probably went up from 15 until you reached the bottom of the ballpark range. If I had asked about the number 100 you would have come down from 100 until you reached the top of the ballpark range.

Your estimate of the number of countries in Africa, then, was almost certainly influenced by the number I proposed, even though it was clearly wrong. This initial figure, which so influenced you, is known as an anchor. Anchors are incredibly pervasive and their influence can be seen everywhere that figures are invented, guessed or debated.

Englich, Mussweiler and Strack showed that even experienced judges could be influenced in this way when deciding on prison sentences for criminals. The judges rolled dice first and considered whether the number rolled was too high or too low for the number of months a prisoner should serve. Then they decided how many months to actually sentence someone to. Those who rolled a three recommended an average of about five months; those who rolled a nine recommended about 8 months!


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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