At a recent fire-safety meeting, Dr. Keith Holyoak, an indisputably brilliant psychologist, was stumped. A safety inspector asked if he knew the location of the fire extinguisher nearest to his office. When the meeting ended, he was curious, so he checked.

It wasn't hard to find. It is about 8 inches from his office door. Where he has worked for 25 years. 

Keith opens his office door

Keith Holyoak and his nearest fire extinguisher.

A scientific investigation followed. Alan Castel, Mike Vendetti, and Keith Holyoak, asked participants to recall the location of various items in Franz hall at UCLA. This is what they found:

  • 91% correct: Floor plan map
  • 80% correct: Clock
  • 96% correct: Drinking fountain
  • 26% correct: Fire alarm
  • 24% correct: Fire extinguisher

It seems that people know where to find things they've used before (the first 3 items) but not the things they haven't (the last 2 items). And it's probably a problem of attention, not memory. People didn't know the location and then forget--they never noticed in the first place. 

When I found out about this study, my friend (and study author) Alan Castel asked me if I knew where to find the fire alarm nearest my office. My best guess was the north-east corner of the large space that houses my office. When I got to work I found the one and only fire alarm.

Nate Kornell and his nearest fire alarm.

It is in the south-west corner. Right outside my office door. I've probably walked past it, oh, a few thousand times. Never noticed a thing. 

Do you know where yours is?

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