Thursday, May 19, 2022

2022 University of Texas Human Dimensions of Organizations Undergraduate Commencement Speech


In May, 2022, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at the University of Texas at Austin Human Dimensions of Organizations undergraduate commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks.


Good afternoon everyone!

Congratulations to the HDO graduates of the Class of 2022! We cannot celebrate your accomplishment enough. It is wonderful to see all the family and friends who have gathered here today. It is also great to share the stage with the HDO faculty and staff who did so much to support our graduates. I am so thankful that we are able to be here in-person this year.

Today, you are not just college graduates, you are Human Dimensions of Organizations graduates. You are bringing a unique human-centered perspective to bear on a world that desperately needs it. The front page of any newspaper or social-media feed is likely to highlight significant societal and political problems—and most of those will not be solved with money or technology. They will be solved through an understanding of people—as individuals, groups, and cultures. And you, graduates, will be in the best position to lead that charge.

Your education has prepared you to handle all the gray in the world around you. The gray reflects the nuance, context, goal conflicts, and boundary conditions that complicate relationships among people. One of the most important things you have learned is that the answer to every difficult question involving people is “it depends,” and you have skills to determine what effective solutions depend on. In particular, there are three things you will all bring to your future work.

First, you are able to see the normally invisible lines of force between people. Don’t worry. I don’t mean that literally…In your classes, you have drawn lessons from a variety of different disciplines to teach you about how to think about people

Whenever you learn something new, it changes the way you see the world. Years ago, I read an article in the Austin American-Statesman about the Austin Parkour Club. The members have all learned the art of clambering up walls, leaping to different surfaces, and acrobatically navigating urban spaces. One of the members talked about how he sees the world differently having learned this discipline.  Where other people see a brick wall, he sees the handholds and footholds that would enable him to scale it. The new physical skills he acquired literally changed what the world looked like for him.

Similarly, having learned about elements of the way people interact, you will see things in group dynamics that your colleagues will miss. You will recognize ways that different people’s goals, education, and life circumstances will change the way they view a particular situation. That will help you to understand the limits of potential solutions and courses of action you are considering.

Just as importantly, you have also gotten new words to talk about those concepts. When you use that vocabulary for talking about what you see, you will help everyone you interact with to develop the same powers of observation. On top of that, this vocabulary gives you a grounding to influence those interactions and create better teamwork and workplace relationships.

To do that you’ll need to draw on the second core skill—your ability to empathize with others. HDO has given you opportunities to engage with history and with works of fiction related to the workplace. One of the great values reading fiction and learning about other times and places is that it enables you to walk in the shoes of others. Great novels give you alternative perspectives on events. History provides a chance to consider a world very different from the one you’re living in now. Along the way, you grapple with the difference between the way you would react to a situation and the way that a character in a book or a figure from history has dealt with it. You also get insight into the thoughts and feelings of other people that you can contrast with your own. The engagement and analysis of literature and the study of history hones your skills to empathize not just with fictional and historical characters, but also with the people you encounter daily.  

Empathy has value because it helps you to understand the nuance in situations. To understand how this works, let me first introduce you to research on people who are bicultural. Bicultural individuals are those who have been raised simultaneously in two cultures and have adopted them both. This is common among immigrants to a country who have both the culture from the place where they grew up as well as the culture of their adopted country. Bicultural people have been shown to be more creative than those who grow up in a single culture because they are able to see every situation through two different lenses—one from each of their cultures.

That does not mean that people who are not bicultural are out of luck. Engaging with disciplines like history and literature allows you to immerse yourself in alternative perspectives on common situations. The empathy skills you developed through this engagement and understanding of people different from yourself will allow you to act more like a bicultural individual. You will be better able to take different perspectives on the events going on around you. And that will help you address the gray.

Finally, the ability to empathize and influence the world around you requires that you carry with you a strong sense of ethical behavior. Not long ago, the cognitive scientist Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy, in which he argued that empathy can lead people to do horrible things to others.  For example, soon after the United States declared war on Japan during World War II, President Roosevelt used empathy with victims of the Pearl Harbor bombings as well as the fear instilled by bombings of the west coast of the United States by Japan to justify and build support for the program of internment camps for Japanese Americans—which was not one of our nation’s finer moments.

Examples of empathy used badly are key demonstrations that empathy is a tool that is ethically neutral. It can be used for good and for ill. And—more generally—your UT education has given you many tools rooted in your understanding of motivation and human behavior that will enhance your effectiveness at influencing others. That power can be used in many different ways. Will you use that power to promote behaviors that have a long-term benefit on your organization and the people it serves? Will you use that power to develop trusted relationships? Will you use your influence to create more respect and understanding in your community?

In the 20th century, business education was dominated by a perspective informed by theories in the field of economics. Economics helps us to track money and “utility.” It often drives people toward maximizing the benefits of actions in the short-term. As a result, this foundation for thinking about business glosses over a lot of the nuance about human relationships that drives success. I would argue that many of the factors that led to the “great resignation” and the “great reshuffling” that we are seeing now in the work world can be laid at the feet of this approach to doing business, because it does not account for the variety of goals that people pursue and the values they strive for through their work.

Business in the 21st century must shift the foundation of business—and I believe that it will—by emphasizing the humans at the center of every organization. This approach will enable us give workplace relationships and trust the value they deserve in creating long-term prosperity and well-being. And you—HDO graduates of 2022—will be at the forefront of this revolution.

As you leave the University of Texas and take that first job, remember that you will be able to see things in the people around you that others will not. Share your perception. You will be skilled at understanding the goals and mindsets of your colleagues, customers, and clients. Share your empathy. And you will be positioned to help your organizations truly value the relationships they can create. Share your values.

And remember to let us know how you’re doing. You may only have spent a few years at UT getting your education, but you’re a Longhorn for the rest of your life. We are always here for you.

Congratulations and Hook ‘em.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Human Dimensions of Organizations Commencement Speech

 On December 10, 2021, I had the honor of giving a commencement speech to the graduates of the Human Dimensions of Organizations Program at the University of Texas. Here is the text of my speech.

Graduates, friends and family, my colleagues. It is an honor to have a chance to speak here on this wonderful occasion.


If you wrote a movie about a global pandemic prior to 2020, the heroes of the movie would be people in STEM fields. At the start of the outbreak, medical professionals would treat the sick. Scientists would sequence the genome of the novel virus. Bioengineers would develop a novel vaccine using cutting-edge technology. And the credits would roll as the first people got their shots—signaling the end of the threat.


One of the things that life experience teaches us is the limitations of our narratives. In the actual pandemic that began in 2020, the first vaccines were administered midway through Act I. As it turns out, the heroes we need aren’t just from the STEM fields. We need heroes who understand people in order to go beyond partisan divides to ensure that everyone gets vaccinated and takes other precautions. We need heroes to find ways to reduce barriers to getting the vaccine to people in every country in the world and not just the wealthiest nations. We need heroes to help people stay resilient in the face of what seems like a never-ending series of variants and other setbacks.


But, of course, all of you that we’re honoring today already knew that. By committing yourself to the last 15 months of study in the Human Dimensions of Organizations program, you recognized that understanding people is crucial for your future success. Today, you are graduates of the HDO Masters program. Congratulations on your hard work, your engagement with your classes, and completing the research on your capstone projects.  


While I have you all here as a captive audience, though, there are three more things I’d like to tell you. After all, you are about to take the knowledge and skills you have developed here to venture off to be the heroes we need.


First, let’s go way back to the very first week of the program in August of 2020. I spoke to several of you about your initial ideas for your final project and introduced you the concept that “The best capstone project is a completed capstone project.” I’m glad you took that advice to heart and did what you needed to do to finish.


But, that lesson is one you need to carry forward to everything you do. Human behavior is complicated, and you will never foresee everything that can go wrong with a plan that involves other people. Instead, you have to become adept at getting plans initiated and fixing them as they go along.


I have always found it strange that if you roll out a plan and then have to make changes people think you did something wrong—but nobody gets frustrated when a new piece of software needs an update a week after buying it. Remember—software is far less complicated than people. That means you have to set the norm that the plans you implement will change as you learn more. Your marker of success is where you end up, not where you start.


Second, your hard work has put you in a position to be better able to influence the lives the people around you. You have learned concepts that describe how people are motivated, so you can recognize what is driving their behavior. You have explored the qualities of leadership that create trust. You have worked on your ability to construct persuasive arguments.


All of these tools are ethically neutral. You can influence other people to do great things or terrible ones. You can persuade others to serve the broader community or just their own interests. You can build solid neighborhoods in which people lift each other up, or you can undermine people’s faith in each other.


Make the ethical use of influence a centerpiece of your work. As an example, I have initiated a practice in the teams I lead to make conversations about dilemmas a regular part of our work flow. As you may know, in the construction industry, they start meetings with a safety moment in recognition that lapses in safety can lead to fatal accidents. Analogously, I start team meetings with an ethics moment in which we watch a video or discuss a problem someone is facing. In this way, the team gets used to grappling with thorny problems before they become newspaper stories. It helps to send the message that ethics is as important in our workplace as safety is on a construction site.


Third, teach what you know to other people.  We live in a world in which far too few people understand the humans around them. We simply don’t teach much about individual behavior, group interactions, cultural influences, or leadership as part of our standard curriculum. That means you now know a lot more about these topics than most of the people you work with.


There are times when the knowledge and skills you have are more valuable when only you have them. This is not one of those times. The more that you can teach others about how to work together effectively, to solve problems among coworkers or with customers and clients, and to  resolve conflicts, the more open that your colleagues are going to be to your continued advice.


You will find that you teach in many different ways. You might actually give a class to a group of people you work with. But, you can also teach through day-to-day interactions with your colleagues. Use the concepts you have learned here explicitly in your discussions. Model the kind of behavior you want from others, but then call it out. Don’t expect that people will pick up on the things you’re doing without being told. It is ok to engage in a version of “see what I did there?” as part of your work.


The result of all this effort is that you will build a better market for your knowledge by giving as much of it away as you can.


So, that’s it. My last lesson. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Use your power wisely. And the best way to wield that power is to give it away. 


And before you head off to celebrate with your family and friends, remember that we’re always here for you. It has been a great joy for me to have graduates of the program come back and take seminars or just grab a cup of coffee and talk about what they’re working on. The HDO program has built an amazing community of alumni, and today you join their ranks. I look forward to hearing about all the ways in which you are the heroes that are needed in your communities.



Thursday, December 5, 2019

Is Perspective-Taking A Skill?

When we study psychology, there is a tendency to think about the tasks that we do as if there were built-in modules in the brain dedicated to those tasks.  So, we talk about memory and assume that there is a particular thing in the brain that helps us remember information.  We talk about attention, and figure there must be particular brain systems that help us to pay attention.
As the science of psychology has matured, it has become clear that there are many different systems that help us with a variety of tasks.  We now know, for example, that there are many different kinds of memory.  Some help us remember information over the long-term and some help us to hold on to information for a few seconds or minutes.  Other memory systems allow us to execute habits or to predict what is likely to happen next in a situation.
An interesting paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Rachel Ryskin, Aaron Benjamin, Jonathan Tullis, and Sarah Brown-Schmidt examined perspective-taking as a task.  Perspective-taking is the ability to take someone else’s viewpoint into account when thinking. 
For example, in a classic study, Robert Krauss and his colleagues found that when people were asked to give directions to a landmark in New York City, they changed the way they described how to get to the landmark depending on whether the person asking was from the city.  For other city-dwellers, people gave less specific instructions, because they assumed people would know basic aspects of navigating the city like how to get uptown versus downtown.
These researchers examined whether perspective taking was a single ability or a task that involves multiple different systems.  They examined this question in an interesting way by looking at individual differences in performance on different tasks that require perspective taking.  If perspective taking is a single ability, then people good at one task involving this ability should be good at other tasks involving it as well.
They selected three tasks for participants to perform across multiple sessions.  In one task, participants saw a series of 80 words and were asked to generate cues that would remind them of those words in two days.  This task requires people to take the perspective of themselves in a few days to figure out what would remind them of the words they saw. 
The second pair of tasks involved conversations between two people seated at different computer screens in separate rooms in which one person had to tell another which object on a 3 x 3 grid to click on.  On each grid, there was one square that was covered, so a particular participant could not see behind it.  Participants also knew which square was blocked for the other participant, though they could see behind it.  The image here shows examples of the materials from the paper.  One square is always covered.  The gray square is the one in which the participant can see what is there, but knows the other participant can’t see it.
With these grids, the person speaking is shown one of the objects and is told that the other participant should find that object on their grid.  The object they are supposed to talk about is circled.  In this case, it is a banana.  The key question is when do participants use an adjective along with the name of the object to help the other participant.  In the situation on the left, the participant has to use the adjective big to distinguish the big banana from the small one.  On the right, there is no need to use an adjective, because there is only one banana.  In the middle, though, there are two bananas, but only one is visible to their partner.  So from the speaker’s perspective, they should call it a big banana, but if they recognize that their partner can only see one banana, then they should not use an adjective. 
Finally, participants hearing the instructions have to search their grid to find the object.  Participants in this study were connected to an eye tracker so that it was possible to see what they were looking at as the task progressed.
Suppose the speaker says, “Find the big banana.”  At the adjective (big), the participant could look at any large object on the screen.  When the noun arrives (banana), participants could glance at any bananas in the grid.  The question is whether participants will look at objects that they know the speaker cannot see, because those objects are hidden from the speaker. 
In addition to these three tasks, participants did a number of other measures to help understand what factors lead to good performance in perspective-taking tasks.  They did the Stroop Task as a test of executive function.  In this task, participants have to name the color of the font that words naming colors are presented in.  This task is particularly difficult when the color of the font is a different color than the color named by the word.  For example, people are slow when the word green is written in a blue font.  They also did tests of working memory (the amount of information you can hold in mind at once when doing a task) and long-term memory skill (the number of words from a list people could remember). 
On average, participants were reasonably good at all tasks.  They remembered about half of the words from the list for which they generated cues two days later.  They tended to use adjectives when they were needed and omit them when they were not necessary.  They found the object that their partner was talking about, and looked less at objects that were hidden from their partner than at other objects.  However, there were also substantial differences on these tasks across participants.
Of interest, the correlations in performance across all three the tasks were low.  So, doing well in one perspective-taking did not predict how well people would do on another task.  The measure of executive function did not predict individual differences in performance on any of the tasks that well.  Individual differences in working memory predicted how well people would do in the memory task and also in the task in which they were the speaker.  In addition, overall memory performance also predicted how well people would do on the memory task in which people found cues for themselves.  None of the measures predicted how well people would do when finding objects that were labeled for them. 
What does all of this mean?
The complex task of perspective-taking seems to involve a number of different abilities.  You have to figure out what information someone else has access to (or what information you are likely to have in the future) and then use that information to inform what you do on the task.  It appears that this task recruits many different abilities depending on the specific nature of the task you are doing.  So, even though we have a single word for perspective-taking, psychologically it involves many different abilities.
One ability that does seem to be important for this task across at least a few situations is working memory.  That makes sense.  If you are going to take another person’s viewpoint into account, then you need to be able to keep in mind both what you are doing as well as what the other person knows.  The less information you can hold in mind at one time, the less able you are to keep track of what other people know.
Finally, this study further demonstrates how careful we have to be at figuring out the basic units of thinking.  There is a tendency to focus on the tasks people perform and assume the brain is organized in a way that respects these tasks.  Studies like this demonstrate that every task we perform involves a variety of different more basic abilities that are brought together as needed.
One reason why this matters is that when we do neuroimaging studies to look at brain activity when people are doing a task, we often start to identify brain regions with the particular task people were performing.  As this study demonstrates, though, a task like “perspective-taking” is not a single thing.  So, it would be dangerous to conclude that there are particular brain regions that are associated with perspective-taking, because that complex task involves lots of more specific abilities.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Knowledge and blame

Human beings love to give explanations for things.  If you have ever spent any time with a five-year-old, you know that a child that age just loves to ask, “Why?”  This desire to understand why things happen continues throughout our lives.  Understanding why things happen affects many aspects of our lives, including our ability to assign blame for an action. 
The way we go about assigning blame often involves our ability to come up with counterfactual statements.  A counterfactual is a statement that starts, “If only…” where the “If” part of the statement talks about something that didn’t really happen. 
Suppose, for example, two children are playing catch with a football in the living room of a house.  One of them throws the ball too hard, and it hits an expensive vase.  We might blame the child who threw the ball by staying, “If only he hadn’t thrown the ball too hard, the vase would not have broken.”  Or, we might blame both children by saying, “If only they had played catch outside, the vase would not have broken.” 
There are many factors that people take into account when they create these kinds of counterfactuals when trying to figure out who to blame.  Quite a bit of research by Jonathan Baron and his colleagues, for example, demonstrates that we often focus on actions people take rather than inactions when assigning blame.  So, if a man pushes someone over and she gets hurt, we blame the man for hurting the woman.  We reason that if he had not pushed her, she would not have gotten hurt.  But, suppose the man watches a woman about to walk into a bench that she does not see.  He does not tell her about the bench, and she trips over it, falls, and gets hurt.  The man might have prevented the accident by speaking out, but we don’t think he is (as much) to blame.  In part, his inaction is not seen as much of a cause of the woman getting hurt, because even if he had spoken up, it is possible she still would have fallen.
An interesting paper by Elizabeth Gilbert, Elizabeth Tenney, Christopher Holland, and Barbara Spellman in the May, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores another aspect of blame:  the knowledge of the individual performing the action. 
The idea behind these studies is that we often blame people more for actions when they have knowledge that they could have acted on.  So, if the children playing catch in the living room are 2-years-old, we might blame them less for the broken vase than if they are 10-years-old, because the 2-year-olds might know that throwing objects around the room can lead things to be broken, while the 10-year-olds know that and so they could have (and should have) acted differently.
In one study, participants read a scenario in which Sarah borrows a car from Josh.  It turns out that the car has brake problems.  Sarah drives a little recklessly and gets in an accident that hurts another person.  In this situation, people think Sarah and the brakes of the car are the cause of the accident.  However, if Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did not tell Sarah, then people now think that Josh is actually more to blame for the accident than Sarah.  If he had told her, then she might have driven differently.  In a third condition, Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did tell Sarah, but she drove recklessly anyhow.  Now, Sarah is once again seen as more blameworthy than Josh for the accident, because she had enough knowledge to act more responsibly.
Another study in this series looked at the counterfactuals people create.  The scenario in this study involved a woman who is cutting the grass at her house with a lawnmower that is defective.  The lawnmower spins out of control and cuts her prize tulips.  In one condition, the woman does not know the lawnmower is defective.  In the other, her mechanic has told her the mower is defective. 
Participants were asked to generate several “If only” statements and to rate whether this counterfactual statement could have occurred and whether the woman could have controlled whether that happened.   They also rated the woman’s blame for destroying the tulips.
Participants thought the woman was more to blame when she knew the lawnmower was defective than when she did not know.  The reason for this difference was that when the woman knew the lawnmower was defective, people were more likely to think that she could have done something (like buy a new lawnmower) that would have fixed the problem and spared the tulips.  So, there was a direct link between the counterfactuals people created and the blame they assigned the woman.
Ultimately, when we are trying to understand the causes of events in our world, we reason about the way the world could have been had people taken different actions.  When we think that people could have easily taken an action that would have led to a different outcome, we blame them for that outcome.  And, knowledge is one key factor that makes us believe that a person could have acted differently.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Explanations and Our Place in Society

There is a funny paradox in politics. Many people who are successful or wealthy recognize the combination of talent and circumstances and plain luck that landed them where they are.  Those who are unsuccessful or poor can recognize how things might have gone differently if their circumstances had been different. 
Yet, the recognition that success and wealth do not happen purely on the basis of effort and merit does not change people’s attitudes toward social policy.  While we recognize that there is substantial income inequality in the United States, few people endorse specific policies that would redistribute income and opportunity.
Why is that?
This question was explored in an interesting paper by Larisa Ussak and Andrei Cimpian in the November, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 
They suggest that from an early age, people tend to explain the behavior of groups in terms of characteristics that those people have rather than in terms of the social forces that act on them.  This focus on inherent characteristics rather than extrinsic forces leads people to accept that groups deserve to be in the social position they are in.
The first few studies in this paper looked at 8-year-olds and adults.  They were given descriptions of groups of people from an alien planet.  They were told that the groups had some kind of inequality (for example, one group might have a lot more money than the other).  Then, they were given two explanations for that difference.  One explanation focused on inherent characteristics (one group is smarter than the other).  The second explanation focused on extrinsic factors (one group found a lot of gold).  Participants rated how plausible they thought these explanations were.  (Pilot studies showed that thought each explanation was equally plausible as a description of why one group might be wealthier than another.)  They also rated whether they thought the situation on the planet was fair. 
Both adults and 8-year-olds gave higher ratings to explanations based on inherent characteristics than to those based on external factors.  Of interest, the more strongly that a person preferred the inherent explanation to the external one, the more that they thought the situation on the planet was fair.
Other studies in this series found a similar result with children as young as 5.  In addition, studies found that children given the scenarios and asked to generate an explanation for the difference on their own tended to give explanations referring to inherent properties than to give explanations based on extrinsic factors. 
Interestingly, these differences in explanations are observed when children think about groups, but not about individuals.  When they are told about individuals from a planet who come from different groups and differ on some characteristic (like income), they are equally likely to give explanations based on inherent and extrinsic factors.  So, the effect I have described seems to apply just to beliefs about groups.
One final study manipulated the type of explanation and looked at fairness.  In this study, children were given either an inherent or an extrinsic explanation for a difference between groups on a planet.  Children given an inherent explanation thought the difference between groups on the planet was more fair than children given an extrinsic explanation.
Putting all of this together, when children and adults look at groups of people, they often assume that group differences result from characteristics of group members rather than situational factors.  As a result, they tend to think those group differences are fair.  This suggests that one reason why people often fail to endorse public policies that might help to repair differences between groups is that they think that the differences between groups actually reflect aspects of those groups that are causing the inequality rather than situational factors that public policy might be able to fix.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Your Memories Are Not Fixed in Stone

One of the scariest parts of the legal system is its reliance on eyewitness testimony.  A witness identifies who a defendant as the perpetrator of a crime can sway a jury in the absence of any physical evidence that that the defendant was actually the one who committed the crime.
For several decades, of course, we have known that eyewitness memory is faulty.  In the 1970s, classic studies by Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues demonstrated that people would mix together information they saw and things they heard in later questions when thinking back to an event.  In a 1974 paper written with John Palmer, participants watched a film of a car accident.  Later, participants were asked to judge how fast the cars were going.  Some people were asked how fast they were going when they hit each other, while others were how fast they were going when they smashed into each other.  A week later, participants were asked whether the saw broken glass in the accident.  Those who were asked about the cars smashing into each other were much more likely to say they saw broken glass than those who were asked about the cards hitting each other.
On the basis of results like this, there are two possibilities.  One is that when we remember things, we recreate our memory based on fragments of actual memories from the past.  This view of memory suggests that we may make mistakes when we do this reconstruction, but somehow the truth is still buried in our memories somewhere. 
A second possibility, though, is that when we are reminded of the initial situation, our initial memory is actually opened up again in ways that allow it to be altered. That is, over time the initial memory may be gone completely and replaced with a revised version.
For a long time, the first of these possibilities was the one that was generally assumed by the field.  More recently, though, studies suggest that our initial memories themselves may be changed in the future through a process called reconsolidation.  In reconsolidation, a memory is made active again, and while it is active, it is subject to change.
One example of reconsolidation in people comes from a 2007 study by Almut Hupbach, Rebecca Gomez, Oliver Hardt, and Lynn Nadel published in Learning & Memory.  They had participants two lists of words over a three-day period. 
On the first day, participants learned a list of 20 words that named common objects.  They practiced the items until they could recall at least 17 of the 20 items on the list.  On Day 2, some participants were reminded that they had learned a list on the previous day.  Others were not given a reminder.  These two groups then learned a second list of words naming a different set of common objects.  A control group did not learn the second list.  On the third day, participants returned and were asked to remember as many of the words from the first list as possible.
The control group recalled about half of the words on the list.  The group that was not reminded of the list that they learned on the first day recalled 45% of the words, and occasionally also recalled one of the words from the second list (about 5%).  The group that was reminded of what they did on the previous day recalled only about 36% of the words from the first list.  Interestingly, they also recalled about a quarter of the words from the second list they learned.
This finding suggests that just reminding people of the experience of learning the first list led people to combine their memory of the first list with that of the second.  Two control conditions refined this finding a bit.  In one study, participants recalled the first list immediately after learning the second list.  In this study, participants did not recall any of the items from the second list when remembering the first list.  This finding suggests that it takes time for the memory of the second list to be combined with the memory of the first list.
Another control condition looked at memory for the second list.  This study found that when people recalled the second list, they rarely also added words from the first list to it, even when they had been reminded that they had learned the first list in the previous session.  This study suggests that it is only the initial memory that is being affected by a later experience.
Putting all of this research together suggests that it is possible to rewrite aspects of our old memories with new information that was acquired after the initial memory was created.  These findings are particularly frightening when it comes to things like eyewitness memory, because it suggests that even if people were able to recall things correctly at some point in the past, that “truth” may no longer exist anywhere in memory.
This is just one more reason why the legal system needs to treat eyewitness testimony carefully.  After all, if old memories have been altered by new information, then the witness will believe deeply in their testimony, because it reflects their actual memory.  Unfortunately, that actual memory is not an accurate reflection of the past it represents. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bring Your Brain to Work is coming!

Hey everyone. I'm excited to start introducing Bring Your Brain to Work to the world. Over the next few months, I will be posting videos discussing topics that I'll be covering in the book. But, first a quick promo...