What was the capital of Latvia again? And the French word for “main course”? And what do you call the guy who carries a golf player’s golf clubs and bag? Can’t remember? Well, this does not mean that you have a bad memory. Human memory is complex and it deals with our world surprisingly well, even if we think it is poor.


On his blog psychologist Jeremy Dean outlines some characteristics of our memory that maybe make us revise our idea of having a poor memory. When we are unable to recall something, it does not mean that it is gone, it just means that you do not have access to it at the moment. This means that even when you think you have lost a memory it will still be there and with the right trigger you will be able to recall it. You just need a certain cue. The context in which you learned what you are trying to recall might help. It will be easier to re-learn information you once learned than information that is completely new to you, even if the memory is hard to recall.


Moreover, forgetting is not such a bad thing. Forgetting is actually an integral part of an efficient memory. If we were able to recall everything we had ever learned it would make the process inefficient. A nice example is when trying to recall where you parked your car. Imagine you would recall all the places in which you ever parked it. On the other hand, when we manage to recall memories we should also be aware of the fact recall changes the memory and that recall is not really recall, but rather reconstruction. In an earlier post we learned that it is even possible to implant false memories. Therefore we should not trust our own memories too much.


Moreover, we are not good at assessing our own memory. We overestimate to what extent we will in the future be able to recall things we know or that come to our mind at the moment. Even if the content is very obvious and we believe we will not forget it, it is likely that we will. Just remember a situation in which you put something, e.g. your key, in a place that made absolute sense and then you could not find it any more later on. Thus, if there is something we definitely want to remember, we better write it down right away. Or we use the effortful way of learning it. The more effortful learning, the more effective it will be. Things that are easy to recall are not learnt well; we only learn when we have to work hard to recall something. Learning also depends on context, thus in order to get the learned content independent of context, we have to learn material in different contexts (e.g. in our study, outside, etc.) or we have to make sure to be in the same context in which we learned the material when we want to recall it.


By the way, the capital of Latvia is Riga, French for “main course” is “plat principal”, and the guy with the golf bag is a caddy.

Who can you trust?

This is a question that comes up frequently. You might ask yourself the question when closing a deal with a new business partner or when recruiting employees. If the business partner or employee really proves to be trustworthy, your confidence in them will pay off. But if not, you will be at a disadvantage. Thus, who can you trust and how can you know whom you can trust?


In an article in the Harvard Business Review social psychologist David DeSteno from Northeastern University in Boston addresses these questions. With respect to the first question – who can you trust – he comes to a somewhat disillusioning conclusion. 90 percent of people will cheat if they believe they will not get caught. Integrity is not stable, but rather depends on the circumstances. For example, increasing status and power are related to decreasing honesty and reliability. However, this does not mean that rich people are generally less trustworthy than poor people. Any momentary feeling of higher status, even if experimentally manipulated and just for a very short period of time such as a few hours, will make people act in a less trustworthy way.


We reported on this before: the situations we are in have a great influence on how we behave. However, in this post we also outlined that psychologist Philip Zimbardo identified a few critical aspects of situations that make “bad” behaviour more likely to appear. His research also shows that there are certain personality characteristics that make people less susceptible to the influence of the respective situations. This is for example what cut-e’s questionnaire squares does. It measures how likely someone is to fall for the cues of certain situations and show risky or unethical behaviour.


However, you will not always have such a questionnaire at hand. This takes us to the second question addressed in the introduction: how can you know whom you can trust? It seems that there are several cues of body language that, taken together and only taken together, can be indicators of a person’s trustworthiness: hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away from the partner. Subconsciously most humans make use of these cues.


In a video Professor DeSteno explains an experiment they conducted on this topic. They found that individuals trust others more when acting face-to-face as opposed to chatting via computer, and that they subconsciously use exactly the four mentioned gestures to assess the other person’s honesty. Thus you may as well trust your gut feeling when assessing another person’s reliability. Additionally, David DeSteno suggests to be generous to the other person because this will make the other feel grateful, which in turn lowers the risk of them cheating on you. Generate a feeling of similarity, which yields the same effect. And, finally, do not threat the other person to punish dishonest behaviour because this will reduce their intrinsic motivation to be honest.

Synthetic happiness

Have you ever had this feeling that some event in the future will make your life so much better than it is now? For example, finally getting the promotion you have been working for, finding the partner that you have always been longing for, or losing the 10 kg of weight that you have been trying to get rid of for years? And then, finally, you will be the happiest person on the planet? Science says that you might be for a while, but you won’t be for long.


In a TED Talk, psychology professor Dan Gilbert from Harvard University explains that no matter whether we win a lottery or become paraplegic from one day to the other, we will after a certain amount of time return to our initial level of happiness. However, we have the “impact bias”, meaning that we overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. In truth these events have less impact than we think.
Dan Gilbert says there are two kinds of happiness: Natural happiness is when we get what we wanted. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get it. In a series of experiments he found that humans are actually pretty good at creating it for themselves. On the other hand a lot of misery stems from overrating the difference between the situation one is currently in and the alternative situation – from wanting too much what we do not have at the moment. Thus, he argues that happiness does not so much originate in what happens to us. Rather, we have the power to synthesise our happiness!