Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Wasn’t it just Christmas? Memory and time-of-year

Context makes the past feel nearer.

Christmas SceneAs I write this, the Christmas season is upon us. The weather is colder (though it is never that cold in Austin). There are lights on the houses up-and-down the street. The stores are all decked out in red and green in an effort to entice into spending another few dollars on presents.

The funny thing is that at this time of year, it feels as though last year's holidays just happened. Yet, over the summer, when the temperature has climbed into the triple digits (again) and people feel like they are melting into the sidewalk, the holidays couldn't feel further away. What is going on?

A paper by Jennifer Coane and David Balota in the December, 2009 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review suggests one thing that is going on. They examined whether concepts that relate to a particular time of year are easier to think about at that time of year than at other times.

To test this possibility, they used a procedure called a lexical decision task. In this procedure, people see a set of letters like EGGNOG or BRANE. They have to judge whether the letters form a word. So, they would press a button to respond "Yes" to the first example and "No" to the second. The key measure is the amount of time that it takes to make the response. Quite a bit of research over the last 40 years has found that people respond faster this task when a concept is easier to think about than when it is not.

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CupidThey tested people at a number of different times of the year (such as near Christmas and near Valentine's day). Some of the words people saw were related to the time of year (EGGNOG for Christmas or CUPID for Valentine's day) and others were not. For example, if you saw CUPID around Christmas, that would not be related to the time of year.

They found that people were faster (and also more accurate) to say that a string of letters was a word at the time of year appropriate for a concept than at another time of year. That is, people were faster to verify that EGGNOG is a word near Christmas than near Valentine's day or over the summer.

When a concept is easy to think about, it is also easy to retrieve information related to that concept from memory. In fact, in this study, the researchers found that people had a better memory for words that appeared in the experiment when those words were related to the time of year than when they were not.

Let's put all this together now.

In December, there are many reminders in the environment that it is Christmas time again. In addition, if you are celebrating Christmas, then you may also be thinking about your plans for the holiday. All of this thinking makes it easier for you to think about concepts that relate to Christmas in December than at other times of year. These active concepts then help you to retrieve memories that are related to those concepts. So, you have lots of memories of Christmas. That makes it feel as if the last Christmas wasn't so far away. Over the summer, it is harder to think about Christmas, and so the last one feels very far away.

 

 

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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