Take a look at this short video — it’s a list of animals. Try to remember as many animals as you can.
If you’re like me, you’re pretty confident that you will remember the entire list, even after ten minutes or so. In my case, that’s not so much because the list names animals that most of us are familiar with. After all, there are plenty of other animals not on my list. How would I remember the precise animals that were included from the thousands of possibilities?
Well, I would remember them — or think I would — because they are all names of football teams that play in the NFL. Since I’m a huge football fan, I can easily rattle off all the team names. If I limit myself to just animal team names, I should be able to generate the entire list, right?
Not so fast. Even though there have been several studies demonstrating that experts in a subject area are better at remembering information relevant to their field of expertise, this knowledge can also lead them astray. The classic expert-novice study by Chase and Simon in 1973 pitted experts against novices remembering the arrangement of chess pieces on the board. When the pieces were arranged in an actual position arrived at during real game-play, the experts were much better than the novices. But when the pieces were randomly arranged, experts did no better than novices. More recent work has found that although doctors are better than interns at making medical diagnoses, the experts don’t remember the details of each case as well as the interns.
The movie I presented above was based on a study led by Alan Castel. They showed the same list of NFL teams to 40 student volunteers, then distracted them with an unrelated task for ten minutes. Then the students wrote down all the items from the list they could remember. Finally, they were tested on their knowledge of NFL trivia. Based on their trivia test scores, the students were divided into “experts” (who scored in the top half of the group) and “novices” (who scored in the bottom half). Did NFL knowledge improve scores on the memory task? It did — but there was a big problem with their answers, as shown below:
While the experts did remember more names from the list than novices, they also “remembered” significantly more items that weren’t on the list. The original list featured eleven animal names that were also NFL team names. But it omitted three additional animal team names: Panthers, Eagles, and Cardinals. The experts were significantly more likely to add these items to their list compared to the novices.
In a separate test of body parts (toe, ear, hand, etc.), the researchers found no difference between football experts and novices. Castel et al. say that the knowledge of the experts in football actually hinders accurate recall of the animal names — instead of just remembering what they saw, the experts are mistakenly recalling all the animal-themed NFL teams.
So how many names could you recall from the original list? Did you spot the NFL theme? Does is seem likely to you that you’d make the same kind of mistake? Let us know in the comments.
Alan D. Castel, David P. McCabe, Henry L. Roediger, Jeffrey L. Heitman (2007). The Dark Side of Expertise: Domain-Specific Memory Errors Psychological Science, 18 (1), 3-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01838.x