News and Tribune

May 17, 2013

STAWAR: We’re all losers

Local columnist

Lately it seems like we are constantly losing things.  My wife Diane couldn’t find the charger for her cell phone. I can’t find my flash drive and I’m still searching for an old check register to verify a check written years ago.

Comedian George Carlin once said that when you die and go to heaven, the first thing they do is give you back all the things that you’ve lost during your lifetime. I’m looking forward to being reunited with my college class ring. It was an expensive flashy icon of bad taste that slipped off my finger in a remote Mississippi swamp back in 1973. I was on a diet at the time that somehow only made my ring finger skinnier. 

If the survey of 3,000 British adults by the insurance company esure last year is anywhere near accurate, Carlin’s fantasy would be especially time consuming, considering that the average person loses close to 200,000 items in a lifetime. This averages out to be about nine misplaced items a day, or 3,285 a year. In addition, we spend from 10 to 15 minutes each day looking for missing things. This adds up too, so that on the average, people devote about six months of their lives looking for things they’ve lost. 

To no one’s surprise, men are worse about losing things than women. I just hate the panicky feeling when I pat a pocket and notice that my keys or wallet are missing. Diane says that just talking about losing things makes her anxious and she works hard to develop habits to prevent such losses. 

About 40 percent of couples report arguing over lost items. Nikki Sellers, head of home insurance at esure says that most folks “blame their bad luck on a hectic lifestyle.” About 75 percent of losses occur in the home, with the rest taking place at work, in the car or other venues. 

With technological advances, we can now lose things virtually as well. In the past I would often not be able to find the envelope with copies of last year’s tax return. Thanks to modern conveniences, these days I can’t find the computer file containing last year’s tax return. 

At work I now spend an enormous amount of time furiously searching through old e-mails and drives, looking for documents instead of furiously digging through my desk like I did in the past. 

Such is progress. 

The computer age also has changed the things that people cite as their most frequently lost items. To be sure keys, glasses, umbrellas, purses, wallets, pens and gloves are still on the list. But now cellphones, flash drives, earbuds, chargers, laptops, tablets and e-readers are routinely included. 

According to Zomm News, the top three items now found in office lost-and-found boxes are keys, flash drives and cellphones. The Novatel hotel chain recently reported that item hotel guests most commonly leave behind now is their cellphone charger.

Modern technology, of course, can also help us find lost or misplaced objects. The Find-My-Iphone and a host of other applications and devices take advantage of GPS and wireless technology to help people track their possessions.

 I can’t tell you how often I find myself wishing I could call my lost keys or glasses like I call my cell phone. 

 More than half the people surveyed about losing things said they wished they were more organized and listed “untidiness” and “poor memory” as major reasons they misplace things. Unfortunately, losing things is inexorably tied to our fallible memories. There are occasions when something may be stolen, tumble out of a pocket or fall into a rift in the space-time continuum, but mostly we just forget where we put stuff — such as keys, glasses or wallets — or we forget to take things along with us — like chargers, umbrellas and purses. 

In many cases we know where something is, we just can’t get to it — like the cellphone I lost in a restroom in Mardi Gras World in New Orleans or the purse Diane once left in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Springfield, Ill. 

When I finally was able to get back to Mardi Gras World, my phone was long gone. Diane was luckier; the people at KFC mailed her purse back. We shouldn’t feel too bad about leaving these things behind. World renown musician Yo-Yo Ma once left his $2.5 million cello in a New York City taxi cab. 

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, said that there were no accidents. Psychoanalytic theory held that our behavior is primarily motivated by unconscious forces. In his book “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” Freud said, “We never lose what we really want.” So if you lose that ticket to the ballet, a Freudian might say that unconsciously you really didn’t want to see Swan Lake anyway, and perhaps Yo-Yo Ma was tired of playing Carnegie Hall. 

There may be some truth to this in certain circumstances, but I fail to see any unconscious gain I receive from always losing my Walmart receipts before I get to my car in the parking lot. 

Back in 1986, Emory University psychologists Gene Winograd and Robert Soloway studied a frequent way that people lose things — the use of special hiding places. Frequently-used objects like keys, glasses, purses and wallets are typically kept in the same routine place every day. Occasionally, however, we tuck away infrequently used items, such as passports or tickets for a future event, in special places, thinking that the uniqueness of the placement will make them easier to find in the future. 

Usually our memory takes note of something that stands out. In fact, psychologists call this the Von Restorff effect — a bias in favor of remembering the unusual. While this works in many situations, like remembering highlighted text or exceptionally funny or bizarre experiences, when it comes to storing things, we are just hiding those things from ourselves. 

Winograd and Soloway have said that the use of such stashes is a “misapplication of the distinctiveness theory of memory.” The Von Restorff effect works well in tasks that require recognizing one special item, but is not very effective in jogging the memory as to where an item is located once it is forgotten. 

We may choose special hiding places in order to conceal an item from other people, but unfortunately our future selves are also other people. Practically speaking, it is always better to put objects in the most obvious places possible if you want to assure that you will be able to find them later. 

Children are always losing something, but losing things also becomes an issue as we get older. Texas A&M neuroscientist William R. Klemm says memory problems sneak up on us, especially as our short-term memory fades, which is crucial for new learning. 

He advises that we get better organized, saying, “Life is a lot simpler when you have a place for everything ... habit relieves the memory.” 

He also suggests that we work on paying closer attention and filtering out distractions. He recommends using conscious rehearsal to remember things. Such “effortful processing” can help increase memory significantly. 

 According to Klemm, getting enough sleep and keeping healthy with a balanced antioxidant diet can also help, as can exercise and mentally challenging yourself to keep sharp. Reducing stresses that might impair memory is also important. Putting undue pressure on yourself to locate a loss object can have a paradoxical effect.

So just relax. Maybe you left your flash drive in the freezer when you were getting some ice last night. So you might want to check it out, and while you’re at it, you might as well pour yourself a drink. 


— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at