I had a friend in college who was a baseball genius. He could offer up the career stats of every player in the hall of fame; he knew which teams had won the World Series in each year since its inception—he was a great guy to have on your Trivial Pursuit team; the sports category was a gimme for him.
Whether it’s sports, molecular biology, or quilting, everyone seems to know someone who’s an expert in their field, who seems to possess an inhuman amount of knowledge about their area of expertise. What makes these individuals so special? Part of this expertise seems to be related to the organizational structure of this knowledge. Chess masters, for example, can memorize the positions of chess pieces if they’re in real game positions, but not if they’re randomly placed on the board. But even so, there still must be a component of memory responsible for retrieving individual items. Perhaps experts also have superior skills for retrieving particular memories. Take a look at this list of football teams:
St. Louis Rams
New York Giants
New Orleans Saints
San Francisco 49ers
If you don’t follow American football and you were given 30 seconds to memorize this list, you might be able to recall three or four of the teams 20 minutes later. However, a football fan would notice that one of the teams was different from the rest: the Texas Longhorns are a college team, and all the others are professional teams. When a team led by James Van Overschelde asked football fans to memorize a similar list, nearly seven out of ten could recall that the Texas Longhorns were on the list two days later.
When a separate group of fans was shown a list of college teams that also included the Texas Longhorns, only about 40 percent of them remembered that the Longhorns were on the list.
But what about a non-football-related task: do football experts perform better on this, or is their advantage lost? The participants were asked to memorize a list of two-digit numbers, along with a single letter, like this:
A different group was asked to memorize a separate list of just letters, including the same lone letter from the number list. Take a look at the results:
While football fans were significantly better than non-fans at recalling the Texas Longhorns when they were in a list of pro teams, they weren’t any better at remembering a letter from a group of numbers. So why are the football fans better at remembering the one college team from a list of pro teams? Clearly they don’t just have better memory overall. And it can’t be because they are organizing the teams according to some overriding principle—what’s salient about the Longhorns is precisely the feature that they don’t share.
Van Overschelde et al. argue that this means that experts have not only superior organization of memory in their field of expertise, but also better memory for individual items in that field.
Van Overschelde, J.P., Rawson, K.A., Dunlosky, J., & Hunt, R.R. (2005). Distinctive processing underlies skilled memory. Psychological Science, 16(5), 358-361.