Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You Can Say That Again (But It Won't Be Verbatim)

One of the few comedic moments from yesterday's inaugural was watching Barack Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts muff the words to presidential oath of office.

Remembering something verbatim, it turns out, is very hard to do - even if it’s something you’ve recited often and think you know by heart. Take The Star-Spangled Banner, for instance. Like the oath of office, it's short -- just 81 words (the oath has 35 words). But how many of them do you know?

Years ago, a group of undergraduates was asked just this question. They remembered, on average, just 32 words of our National Anthem. Even professional singers muff the words to the Anthem.

Why do we remember so few? In part, because our memory is economical; it weeds out all sorts of things it thinks are unimportant and leaves us with the gist of the experience but not the entire experience.

This was demonstrated decades ago by the renowned Cambridge psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett. Bartlett asked people to read a short story and then try to recall as much of it as they could. But when his subjects attempted to recall the story, it underwent significant changes. First, it was invariably shortened, usually by half. Second, details were cut, changed or even made up. Third, the language was altered in subtle but significant ways. Odd words were turned into more conventional ones, and the tone generally became more conversational.

In short, they remembered a boiled-down version, not a verbatim one.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Little Things Mean a Lot

If you want to make fewer mistakes, don’t sweat the big stuff. Instead, focus on the little things.

One example: checklists. You probably make one of these every time you go to the grocery store – and for good reason: they work. You write down “loaf of bread” and you don’t forget to buy a loaf of bread.

Now there’s startling new evidence that the same approach that works for you in the grocery store works for doctors in the operating room. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that basic checklists cut the rate of surgical deaths in half. Half!

The checklist had 19 items, some so basic as asking the patient his name so you can make sure you have the right patient. It was tested in 2007-2008 in eight hospitals in eight cities around the world, from Seattle to London to Manila.

Before the checklist was introduced, 1.5% of patients in a comparison group died within 30 days of surgery at the eight hospitals; afterward, the rate dropped to 0.8% -- a 47% decrease.

That’s the power of little things.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Got a gift card for Christmas? Too bad.

Gift cards are the No. 1 gift choice these days: two-thirds of Americans say they plan to buy one. But nobody uses them (well, almost nobody). On average, we each have between three and four gift cards lying unused in wallets, purses and dresser drawers. And these add up: each year, Americans lose about $8 billion through unredeemed gift cards.

That's bad for us -- but great for the companies that issue them. Not long ago, Limited Brands, parent company of the Victoria's Secret chain of lingerie stores, reported a quarterly pretax gain on unused gift cards of $47.8 million, or 8 cents a share (talk about a panty raid!). And they're not alone. Big retailers like Target, Best Buy and Home Depot also make a killing on the cards. One mall owner even allegedly charged fees on unused gift cards, so that by the time shoppers got around to using the card, it was worth less than they expected.

Here's where the mistake comes in: when it comes to predicting future behavior, we think we (and others) will act more virtuously than we end up acting. This behavior is so predictable that researchers have a name for it: projection bias.

There's lots of research demonstrating this, as well as much real-world experience (Busted New Year's resolutions, anyone?). One long-term study tracked high school students who smoked cigarettes. Only 15% of light smokers (less than one cigarette per day) thought they would still be smoking in five years -- but, five years later, 43% of them still were. Researchers have found similar results when it comes to the food we eat and the movies we watch: in the future we think we'll eat healthier food and watch high-brow movies. But today we end up eating junk food and watching trashy movies.