This is known as the Baker-baker paradox. If we are introduced to someone named Mr Baker, we are less likely to remember the name than we are to remember the profession if we are introduced to a baker. If someone is a baker, we can create an image of that person pouring flour, kneading the bread, wearing a tall white hat.
We have already formed a lot of associations with ‘a baker’ – perhaps even multisensory experiences. We have smelled a bakery and eaten freshly baked bread. We can visualize what the baker does. The name Baker is just a bunch of letters. Names are essentially random syllables, a meaningless soup of sounds.
Perhaps, therefore, it is also easier to remember that Mikkel is a doctor and that Nikolaj owns a fruit plantation than the fact that Ib works in IT and Ida in public relations. It is easier to imagine Mikkel performing an operation or to visualize Nikolaj’s apples trees than to form an image of what it looks like when Ida ‘does public relations’.
Cicero, the Roman statesman, philosopher and orator, once wrote, ‘The keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and consequently perceptions received by the ears or from other sources can most easily be remembered if they are conveyed to our minds by the mediation of vision.’
On Hallowe’en, twenty-eight trick-or-treaters with the average age of around ten came to the house. All the kids were given different combinations of candy and asked to rate their happiness levels in relation to it. Seven different happiness levels were shown by using smiley face symbols ranging from neutral to open-mouthed-grin smiley face’. Some kids were given a full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar, some kids were given a piece of gum, some kids were given first a Hershey’s bar then a piece of gum, and some kids were given first a Hershey’s bar then another Hershey’s bar. You would expect more candy to equal more happiness. But the children getting a chocolate bar then a piece of gum were less happy than the kids who received just the chocolate bar. And two chocolate bars did not bring more happiness than one chocolate bar.
In 1973, Standing conducted a range of experiments exploring human memory. The participants were shown pictures or words and instructed to pay attention to them and try to memorize them for a test on memory. Each picture or word was shown once, for five seconds.
The words had been randomly selected from the Merriam-Webster dictionary and were printed on 35mm slides – words like ‘salad’, ‘cotton’, reduce’, ‘camouflage’ ‘ton’.
The pictures were taken from 1,000 snapshots – most of them from holidays – beaches, palm trees, sunsets – volunteered by the students and faculty at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where Standing taught at the time. But some of the pictures were more vivid – a crashed plane, for instance, or a dog holding a pipe. But remember this was the seventies – all dogs smoked pipes back then.
Two days later the participants were shown a series of two snapshots or two words at a time, one from the stack of snapshots they had seen before and one new, and were asked which one looked more familiar.
The experiment showed that our picture memory is superior to our verbal memory. When the learning set is 1,000 words selected from the dictionary above, we remember 62 per cent of them, while 77 per cent of the 1,000 selected snapshots were remembered. The bigger the learning set, the smaller the recognition rate. So, for instance, if the learning set for pictures were increased to 10,000, the recognition rate dropped to 66 per cent. However, we remember snapshots better than we do words. That may be why you might be better at remembering faces than names. So, if you are introduced to Penelope, it might help you remember her name if you picture Penelope Cruz standing next to her.
In addition, if more vivid pictures were presented, rather than the routine snapshots, recognition jumped to 88 per cent for 1,000 pictures.
In her study ‘Brilliant but Cruel’, Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, asked people to evaluate the intelligence of book reviewers using reviews taken from the New York Times. Professor Amabile changed the reviews slightly, creating two different versions: one positive and one negative. She made only small changes in terms of the actual words, for example changing ‘inspired’ to ‘uninspired’ and ‘capable’ to ‘incapable’.
A positive review might read, ‘In 128 inspired pages, Alvin Harter, with his first work of fiction, shows himself to be an extremely capable young American author. A Longer Dawn is a novella – a prose poem, if you will – of tremendous impact. It deals with elemental things – life, love and death, and does so with such great intensity that it achieves new heights of superior writing on every page.’
While a negative review might read, ‘In 128 inspired pages, Alvin Harter, with his first work of fiction, shows himself to be an extremely incapable young American author. A Longer Dawn is a novella – a prose poem, if you will – of negligible impact. It deals with elemental things – life, love and death, and does so with such little intensity that it achieves new depths of inferior writing on every page.’
Half the people in the study read the first review, the other half read the second, and both rated the intelligence and expertise of the reviewer. Even though the reviews were almost identical – the only difference being whether they were positive or negative – people considered the reviewers with negative versions 14 per cent more intelligent and as having 16 per cent more expertise in literature. Professor Amabile writes the ‘prophets of doom and gloom appear wise and insightful’. Anyone can say something nice – but it tales an expert to critique it.