News and Tribune


May 17, 2013

STAWAR: We’re all losers


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. 

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