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.



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