Saturday, September 13, 2008

Memory tricks.

This morning I was thinking about what happened yesterday with Permadoc and how, when nothing is written down, everyone remembers events differently.

My PI has an interesting habit of memory, which I don't fully understand. My impression is that it's just more convenient to remember some things than others.

It's very convenient to blame having a poor memory when "I don't remember" actually means:

I disagreed/disapproved and therefore disregarded that [statement/event/publication/person].

I find myself wondering whether I should have been a journalist. I seem to have a better memory for things people say to me than they do themselves.

But my memory plays tricks on me, too.

Last week I busted my ass doing this one experiment a few times trying to improve the conditions.

While I was collecting the data I thought it didn't really work as well as I would have liked, and I might not be able to conclude much from it.

But then I forced myself, a few days later, to go over it and decide just how well it worked and what I should do differently next time.

And then I realized maybe it worked better than I thought. But part of me had trouble letting go of my earlier impression - my memory - that it looked awful.

The truth is, I was just in a bad mood while I was doing the experiment, and that carried over to my interpretation of it.

This doesn't happen to me all that often, and in fact more often it's the other way around. Sometimes I'm overjoyed because I thought an experiment worked really well, but when I go back to re-examine the data, I decide it's not that great and I was just happy that it worked at all, because my expectations were set low, and the overall effect is to elevate my impression of the outcome.

I see this all the time with supervisors, too. PI is in a bad mood, or doesn't like the person who did the experiment, and that carries over to a very subjective impression of the experiment itself.

And months later, what will PI remember about the result? Just that the feeling associated with it was "bad".

Conversely, crappy data presented by PI's favorite postdoc gets a thumbs-up, but if the rest of us did an experiment the same way, we're criticized for our sloppy methods and poor execution.

And years later, PI will think that anything this former postdoc did must be correct and very carefully done, when in fact past performance suggests that's probably not a fair assessment.

It makes me sad that scientists can't be more objective. Sort of like my friend whom I mentioned yesterday, who seems to think it's fine for people to discriminate against her but not me. What?? She can't be objective about what she deserves.

I have to keep my promise to myself, and to my data, that I will try not to be too hard on us.

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At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments are all too common and sometimes you've no where togo but to feel bad about yourself - the why didn't I see it coming syndrome. "Some people are like that" responses doesn't help. So what's your strategy? Is there one? These are what prompted the development of Hope this helps.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

What an odd phenomenon, having mood/opinion affect how one views data outcomes. I never personally experienced it, but, looking back, this TOTALLY explains some of my coworkers' behavior in regards to their own data.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Helen said...

I've been thinking about the same thing recently. There seems to be a range among people from remembering primarily their interpretations of things to remembering key facts, within an individual, a range of these behaviors as well.

All of us seem to remember some facts and some images made through lenses of our own making. For some, the lenses are more distorting than others, and more frequently employed. But it's something we all do at least some of the time.

I've just assumed that it's part of being a scientist to understand this, study it, and carefully monitor it in oneself so as to keep it from interfering in matters it shouldn't. So I get very puzzled when scientists do this.

And to some degree correcting for this in oneself is a necessary degree to adult socialization, so again, I get very surprised when people lack basic skills in that area.

And some people do lensing on purpose, and "I don't remember," means "I've discovered this is a convenient excuse for getting away with abusing people."

Either way, I've come to realize I just plain don't want people with this kind of "bad" memory in my life and I get rid of them whenever I can.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 1:43,

You got your free ad. Stop sending comments about this book.


Really? Never? I don't think anyone can honestly say they haven't gotten excited about a result and then realized maybe they were a little too excited?


Yeah. Well. "part of being a scientist" is not a universally accepted set of definitions. I think this is one of our big problems. For what should be, by definition, a systematic approach to studying the world, we're lacking for a system of how to be one.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I'm a little slow at reading posts lately.... but I jut wanted to throw in that there is somewhat of a study of this in Cognitive Neuroscience, one study is on depressive realism, in some cases, depressed people are more accurate in how much control they felt they had over things (like pushing a button and a light coming on), where as cheery people overestimate what they put in. There are even differences in the degree of effects like these between male and females (not surprising thinking of anecdotal evidence....) actually I just wanna say in general, the brain is a weird thing


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