Christopher Chabris Performs a Memory Experiment

The psychologist demonstrates the "lowest technology" form of memory test.
  • Transcript


Question: Can you perform a quick memory test for us?

Christopher Chabris:
One of the nice things about memory as a subject of study for cognitive psychologists is that it doesn’t require a lot of high technology to do an experiment.  So, we can actually do a simple memory experiment right now that you can test yourself with.  Now, I’ll just read out a series of words, and I want you to listen to the words and try to remember them, and then after a little while, I’ll ask you some questions about the words.  So, we’ll get started.  I read them about, oh one every second or so; bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy. 

So that was a simple list of words and what I’m going to do now is just ask you about some of the words that may or may not have been on the list.  You can just think to yourself, now was that word part of the list of not. 

Let’s start with, snooze.  Think about whether that was part of the list.  Now, we’ll try apple.  Was that part of the list?  Next, house, was that part of the list?  How about dream?  Was that part of the list?  And what about sleep?  Was that part of the list? 

So we just did about the lowest technology possible memory experiment, a list of words that you have to remember and answer questions about it.  This experiment was actually originally done by researchers named, James Deese and also Roddy Roediger and Kathleen McDermott. And what they found was that people were, of course, pretty good at realizing that which words were inside the list and which words were not in the list.  But there’s one kind of mistake that they make pretty systematically and that’s falsely saying that the word "sleep" was part of the list.  So, the word "sleep" wasn’t in the list that I just gave you.  The list was bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, and drowsy.  All those word have to do with sleep, but "sleep" was actually not on the list.  Yet a lot of subjects in this experiment falsely think that "sleep" was there.  And they're usually pretty confident that sleep was on that list also.  It’s not sort of a marginal thing. 

So, even in a simple situation like this, just trying to remember a few words, our memories can play tricks on us.

Recorded on May 13, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen