How do you hear your name above the din in a party?

How do you hear your name above the din in a party?

How do you hear your name above the din in a party?

I’m sure you have had the experience of being somewhere crowded and noisy, but have heard your name through the din. You can even hear your name over the noise of the conversation you are involved in.

In my last post I related the experiment which showed we hold a huge amount of information in our sensory store for a very short amount of time. That information comes from our sight, hearing and touch senses. We can hold a conversation in a noisy room because we are able to choose which information to focus on. If we focus on the conversation with the people we are standing with, we are able to take in what they say and the rest becomes a background blur. We are thereby never aware of what everyone else was saying in the room, but can move what our friends said into working memory, and respond to it. This is called the Cocktail Party Effect.

However, there appears to be some sort of semantic filter going on below your awareness. It is constantly scanning for sensory input which might be important to you so that it can bring it to your attention. And what could be more important to you than your name?

When someone says your name, even though you are attending to a completely different conversation, this filter grabs you. It pulls your attention away from the conversation and alerts you to the fact that someone just said your name. You can then try to work out who it was and why, and if you are needed elsewhere.

This is undoubtedly useful. Unfortunately it also means you miss whatever was going on in the conversation of which you are supposed to be a part. You can only pay attention to one thing at at time.

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: Thomas Rousing Photography Apollo crowd 2 via photopin (license)

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

In 1960 George Sperling conducted an experiment in which he would flash a grid of 12 letters (three rows of four) to his participants, for less than a second. They would then have to try to recall which letters had been flashed up. They would, typically, manage just 3 or 4.

With another group of participants he would flash a grid of letters in the same way, but with a difference. Just after the letters had disappeared they would be asked to recall the letters from either the top, middle or bottom row. Generally, these participants would also recall 3 or 4 letters.

This result suggests that, at the time the participants were told which line to remember, all of the lines were still present in their memory (or they would not have been able to recall so many from any named line).

It appears, then, that all of those letters were present in memory for a short time. By the time the participants had been asked to recall them and then managed to name a few, however, the rest had dropped out of memory.

The place that held the memory of the letters for a few seconds is known by psychologists as the Sensory Store. It holds a huge amount of information from at least our sight and hearing senses for a very short time. In that time we are able to choose what to focus on, and that is what we become aware of and what goes into working memory.

 

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.

 

Sperling, G. (1960). The information available in brief visual presentations. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 74(11), 1-29.

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski Flickr via Compfight cc

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

In these days of modern scanning equipment, individual neurons can be seen firing in the brains of those being monitored. This has had a remarkable effect on the study of the brain.

Matias Ison, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga and Itzhak Fried, in 2015, studied 600 individual neurons in epileptic patients. They called a neuron in one patient the “Jennifer Aniston neuron” because it would fire every time that person saw a picture of the actress Jennifer Aniston.

Following up on the discovery of this Jennifer Aniston neuron the experimenters would show participants pictures of famous people or family members to discover which neurons would fire in response to those individuals. They then showed a picture of that person at a famous landmark. For example, once they had established a neuron firing in response to any picture of Clint Eastwood, they would show a picture of Clint Eastwood at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. That neuron would then fire even if the person was shown a picture of just the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

This experiment showed that the single neuron had encoded an association between two concepts (Clint Eastwood and The Leaning Tower of Pisa) instantaneously, after just one exposure to the picture.

 

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.

 

Ison, Matias J. et al. (2015). Rapid Encoding of New Memories by Individual Neurons in the Human Brain. Neuron , Volume 87 , Issue 1 , 220 – 230

Your memory of an event is unique.

Your memory of an event is unique.

Your memory of an event is unique.

If you experience something, whether it be as benign as watching a movie in the cinema, or as traumatic as being in a bank when it is raided by masked gunmen, your memory of that event will be unique.

Your memory of watching a movie will be vastly different even from that of the person sitting next to you. Although you are watching the same film from more or less the same place, you each bring your pasts to bear on your interpretation of the movie. It is your subjective interpretation of what you see and hear which has a chance of being encoded into memory, not the facts about what actually happened in front of you.

Not only do we experience everything slightly differently because of our different interpretations, but we are more likely to remember parts of the film which are particularly salient to us. And we all have different pasts and interests, making different aspects more important to different people. If I am into dogs, then I am more likely to remember details about any dogs which may have been shown. If you are into football you may remember the team colours that someone was wearing.

Different pasts mean we not only experience an event differently, but we also place differing levels of importance on any given aspect. These both result in our memories of the same event being potentially vastly different.

 

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: UA Stonestown Twin via photopin (license)

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

If somebody asked you to describe what memory is, you would probably give some sort of explanation along the lines that it is the ability to recall events. However, memory is so much more than that.

Recall of events is certainly one part of memory, known as autobiographical memory, but the following are also instances of memory:

General knowledge: if you know that an old fashioned British phone box and postbox are red, you must have that stored somewhere as a memory.

Language: If you can speak any sort of language you must have memorised what the words mean, along with the grammar needed to speak effectively to other people.

Driving: If you can drive, you must be remembering how to do so. This is a type of memory called procedural memory.

Telling a well known fairy story: You must remember the salient points of a story to be able to retell it.

 

Whenever a past experience influences our present thoughts or behaviour, that must be an effect of memory.

 

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.

You can give away your cake and eat it.

You can give away your cake and eat it.

You can give away your cake and eat it.

Imagine you have the choice of two pieces of cake, one much larger than the other, and your colleague is going to have the one you leave. There is a pressure on you to be generous and take the smaller one. It seems you can either have the better cake or appear generous, but not both.

However, Kardas, Shaw and Caruso showed that there is a way to appear generous and have the larger slice, at least a good percentage of the time. They conducted eight studies in different situations, some imagined and some in real-world situations.

They found that most people, in situations where they were going to choose, abdicated that decision to the other person involved because they wanted that person’s good opinion. Basically, they said, “No, you choose whichever you like, I really don’t mind.” It was their way of appearing generous.

The experimenters also found that most people, if they knew someone had been “generous” enough to abdicate the decision to them, would choose the lesser item. They would let the kind person who abdicated their decision have the better piece of cake (or whatever was on offer).

The person who abdicated the decision, therefore, not only achieved the good opinion of the other (appearing generous), but also got the better piece of cake.

 

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.

A pretty face can sell you anything.

A pretty face can sell you anything.

A pretty face can sell you anything.

I am particularly talking to men here. Men are notorious for thinking with a part of their anatomy which is below the neck, and various experiments have appeared to back this up.

In one study a bank in South Africa sent offers of a loan to 50,000 customers. The loan offer sent out had several variations, such as the description of the loan, the percentage rate, and various different pictures of men and women.

Lots of different psychological techniques in the letters were shown to increase the uptake of loans from the bank by a small amount each. One variable, however, had a huge effect – on men anyway.

Substituting a photograph of a man, replacing it with a picture of an attractive woman, dramatically raised the number of people who contacted the bank to take up the loan offer. Just this change increased the uptake by the same amount as dropping the interest rate by 4.5%.

Think about how much money 4.5% per annum is on a large loan. These men were willing to pay that much more just because there was a photograph of a pretty woman on the loan offer instead of a photograph of a man.

I think we can safely presume that the men didn’t really think they would get to even meet the woman in question, let alone sleep with her, so what did make them more likely to take up the loan? I expect the halo effect was at work.

When we see an attractive person we use that attractiveness judgement to rate all sorts of other qualities which we cannot really begin to know. We consider them to be more athletic, more sociable, and so on. We also rate more highly those things with which they are associated. The loan would therefore be judged as more desirable simply by association with the attractive lady.

 

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.

We perceive people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

We perceive people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

We see people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

Is a first officer of an aeroplane always shorter than the captain? Of course not. Many first officers will become captains, and I assume most have finished growing upwards before they become pilots. But the prestige of the captain’s title lends him an air of authority which results in his being perceived as taller.

In cultures around the world size is associated with value, even in children. Desserts which children like the most are estimated as larger, for example. And coins are rated as larger if their value is higher.

It is the same with people. People are rated as more dominant if they are bigger and they are estimated to be bigger if they are more dominant. The equation of dominance and size seemed to be hard-wired into us.

However, Blaker and Van Vugt concluded from their studies that the equation of prestige and size is likely to be learned from culture. Children see bigger people as more dominant, but not as having more prestige. Adults rate bigger people as more dominant and prestigious.

The equation goes both ways. Adults also estimate people with prestigious job titles as being taller than they really are.

 

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.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

Imagine once more that you are awaiting your turn to speak. This time it is not to give your general recommendation of the best course of action, but to give your firm judgement on something. It might be the price you think a product should be sold for, or how long the Tories will claim that austerity is needed, or whether the price of pork bellies will go up or down next week.

You think the answer is “A”, and that is what you are going to say when it is your turn.

The first person says “B”.

The next person agrees, “B”.

And so on. Everyone before you has said “B”.

What do you say?

I have written before about reputational cascades, where you don’t say what you really feel because you don’t want to risk the bad opinion of the others in your group. However, there is another kind of cascade – an “informational cascade”. This is where you begin to doubt your own judgement because of those before you giving a different answer. You don’t go along with the others out of fear of rejection this time, but because you begin to think you must have been wrong.

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in the 1950s on whether people would conform to the majority view in this way. He showed the group one line on its own, and a group of 3 lines. With each of 18 sets like this they went around the room asking people which line of the 3 was closest to the one on its own.

Actually, only one person in the group was a real participant. The rest were stooges, who all agreed on an incorrect line in 12 of the 18 tests. 32% of the time (about one third) the real participant went along with them and also chose the (very obviously) wrong answer. About 75% of the participants went along with the wrong, majority choice at least once.

 

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.

The first person to speak has the most influence.

The first person to speak has the most influence.

Imagine you are waiting to give your view on a subject. You are pretty sure of your conviction that “A” is the best course of action for the group. The first person to speak, perhaps the leader, surprises you by advocating “B”.

The next person in line around the table also says “B”.

And the next.

And the next.

You are fifth in line. Everyone so far has said “B”, followed by nods and grunts of approval from the leader and others.

Do you still have the courage of your convictions? Do you go against the flow and risk approbation and disapproval by saying “A”?

Of course, this is a rhetorical question. The answer would depend on what paths A and B are, and your perceived consequences of either, as well as the dynamics within the group and how much is personally at stake for you.

However, I’m sure you can see how much pressure there would be on you to go along with everybody else and say “B”, despite your internal beliefs.

It is entirely possible that everyone around the table except the first to speak thought the same as you. Perhaps the second to speak was not all that sure though, and went along with the first just to fit in. And that added pressure on the third who did the same. This produced what is known as a “reputational cascade”. This is when each person goes along with the leader, or the first speaker, to avoid the hostility or bad opinion of the rest of the group.

It is easy to see how this could happen. It can be avoided by the leader not giving their views first and by stressing that they want everybody’s honest opinion, regardless of what it is.

 

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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