Experts' memory: Not as expert as they think

Take a look at this short video -- it's a list of animals. Try to remember as many animals as you can.

ResearchBlogging.orgIf 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

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Interesting study. Not too surprising though since the results are consistent with the false memory literature; especially the data showing kids are less prone to false memories than adults. The explanation for that is probably the same as the explanation for this study's results.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 25 Aug 2008 #permalink

Are the false positives due to the greater passive knowledge of team animal names or from the extra task where the experts conjure up more vivid and distracting memories than the novices?

The methodology as it is described here, suggests greater passive knowledge is the explanation, given that the extra task that would presumably prime NFL team names (i.e., the trivia test) was done after the list recall test, and, there was no difference between experts and novices with a control list. If the trivia test was done before, you'd probably get the same result, but I'm guessing the false positives would be even greater in the experts (although the possibility that it would be less cannot be ruled out if one assumes that the trivia test would somehow cause some kind of conscious processing during list recollection that would lead to awareness of errors).

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 25 Aug 2008 #permalink

It seems like the false alarms are due more to the strategy adopted by the experts ("write down all the animal team names") than the quality of their memory per se. If you gave them a yes/no recognition memory test (as opposed to the free recall test), the experts may not have any higher false alarm rates to the omitted animal team names than the 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."

Were they making the same kinds of false-positive mistakes as this study indicated? Could these errors shed some light on where the errors were being introduced? In other words, that they remembered cases having details that actually belonged to other cases? Or did they remember patients having "textbook" symptoms even if they didn't? Or were they just forgetting details, which would tend to point to a different kind of recall failure?

Oh, and for the record: I noticed the theme that they were professional sports teams immediately, although I'm not a big enough football fan to realize they were all NFL teams. The ones I remember best are the ones that fit into the "animals-but-not-animals-that-I-hear-about-very-often" group (Broncos, Seahawks, etc.) I totally forgot Lions and Dolphins...


why do you think recognition would yield better results?

I personally think recognition would have been even more difficult, because it's easy to confuse that you've recognized something from somewhere vs. that you've recognized it from a specific list.

Interesting study, But it can be made simple if visuals are shown for each animal. May be I am right brain dominant person..

The study seems to confound "expertise" with the methods used to memorize information, by assuming that memory is a black box. However, Frances Yates, in her book The Art of Memory, documents the improbable (by today's standards) feats of memory available to those using a structured mnemonic process developed in ancient Greece and popularized in the Renaissance by Giordano Bruno and others. Check out the first part of… for a brief description of the method. If any expert used even a rudimentary version of this ancient method, they would dramatically skew the results.

I agree that the difference may be accounted for by the memory strategy selected by the experts. I pride myself on my memory, so as the names started flashing I began to build a mind picture. "Dolphin" started as a real dolphin jumping out of the ocean, but as soon as "Bronco" appeared, I switched to a football game between the two teams. After the third animal was also an NFL animal, I just quit with the picture and thought I could rely on my background knowledge. My list ended up including the Cardinals and the Colts.
So maybe when experts encounter situations they already have experience with, they feel they don't need to fully access or store the 'new' information. This makes sense though, taking the aforementioned doctors vs interns case: it would seem to be a waste of time for a doctor to have to face every case of chicken pox as if it was the first he had ever seen. The brain has to create categories in order to be efficient, but obviously this will lead to some problems in memory.
Interesting topic, and great site!