July 14, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 25: The inaccuracy of memory, protecting our time, and the planning fallacy

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I. Source confusion: the inaccuracy of memory

"Memories are not buried somewhere in the brain, as if they were bones at an archeological site; nor can we uproot them, as if they were radishes; nor, when they are dug up, are they perfectly preserved. We do not remember everything that happens to us; we select only highlights. (If we didn't forget, our minds could not work efficiently, because they would be cluttered with mental junk—the temperature last Wednesday, a boring conversation on the bus, every phone number we ever dialed.) Moreover, recovering a memory is not at all like retrieving a file or replaying a tape; it is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like. We may reproduce poetry, jokes, and other kinds of information by rote, but when we remember complex information we shape it to fit it into a story line.

“Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation—confusing an event that happened to someone else with one that happened to you, or coming to believe that you remember something that never happened at all. In reconstructing a memory, people draw on many sources.

“After a while, you won't be able to distinguish your actual memory from subsequent information that crept in from elsewhere. That phenomenon is called ‘source confusion,’ otherwise known as the ‘where did I hear that?’ problem. Did I read it, see it, or did someone tell me about it?" — From Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Only fragments of memories remain in our minds. A scene from our childhood might be a hazy blur, while a recent work event may be a series of snapshots.

Perhaps we browsed our family albums three months ago. Today over dinner, we confuse recalling that image of our eighth birthday with remembering the actual memory of our birthday. Or a particular scene from a film shot in New York becomes conflated with a recent holiday touring Manhattan, leaving us mixing the two to form a new memory. Sometimes we see this inaccuracy and commit time to pondering the true source of a memory. Often, however, this bias goes unnoticed, continually reshaping our past by blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

There is a paradox known as the Mandela Effect, and I apologize in advance if this leads you down an internet rabbit hole, as it did with me some years ago. The Mandela Effect describes false memories shared by multiple people that show a conflict between the past and people's memory of it. This paradox is experienced by hundreds of thousands of individuals sharing the same false memories; common examples are film quotes. Here are a handful, with the second being the correct quote:

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" = "Magic mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"

"Luke, I am your father" = "No, I am your father."

"Houston, we have a problem" = "Houston, we've had a problem."

Other examples range from the Monopoly Man's monocle (he never had one) to the spelling of company names and the design of famous logos.

"Beam me up, Scotty," despite being everywhere in pop culture, is a phrase that was never said in the original Star Trek series.

Aren't these misquotes examples of confabulation, which have become commonplace with repetition? This is the simplest explanation and according to Occam's razor, the closest to the truth. Misquoting films is a harmless example of a lie becoming the perceived truth after enough repetitions. As you might expect, not everyone agrees with this view. A large group of people believe that the Mandela Effect is evidence that they drifted into a parallel universe. Most striking about this belief is that some of us find it easier to believe in the existence of parallel universes than in the inaccuracies of memory.

Aronson and Tavris share two sentences in Mistakes Were Made that encapsulate these memory biases, which they refer to as the self-justifying historian:

"Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it."

II. The planning fallacy

"Buehler et al. asked their students for estimates of when they (the students) thought they would complete their personal academic projects. Specifically, the researchers asked for estimated times by which the students thought it was 50%, 75%, and 99% probable their personal projects would be done. Would you care to guess how many students finished on or before their estimated 50%, 75%, and 99% probability levels? 13% of subjects finished their project by the time they had assigned a 50% probability level; 19% finished by the time assigned a 75% probability level; and only 45% (less than half!) finished by the time of their 99% probability level. As Buehler et al. wrote, ‘The results for the 99% probability level are especially striking: Even when asked to make a highly conservative forecast, a prediction that they felt virtually certain that they would fulfill, students’ confidence in their time estimates far exceeded their accomplishments.’ More generally, this phenomenon is known as the ‘planning fallacy.’" — From Map and Territory by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The planning fallacy describes our inaccurate calibration tools when estimating how long something will take. The scale ranges from the classic "I'll be ready in five" to a project that was initially estimated to take a week taking three months. As bad as we are at predicting the duration of tasks, we are equally as bad at imagining all the steps involved in a project. We often base time estimates on the assumption of everything going smoothly, but how often does that happen? The majority of projects are like playing a game of whack-a-mole. We fix one problem to spawn five more. Although we cannot plan for the unknown, we can incorporate time for it into our estimates.

A good rule of thumb is adding half the estimated duration to the total. If you believe something will take an hour, budget 90 minutes. I find that doubling the duration is more accurate for larger projects. Generally, the larger the project, the more unplanned time they consume.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Shawne Duperon on forgiveness:

“Forgiveness is accepting the apology you will never receive.”

II. Seneca on our willingness to give so freely of our time:

“No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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