Twenty20
Source: Twenty20

Jokes abound about senior citizens losing their keys and glasses. The story is so familiar that people turning 30 get birthday cards about how they will soon be losing their possessions. Yet people in their 30s do lose their belongings, perhaps as often as older folks do. When they're younger, losing items is a source of momentary frustration. As people age, misplacing wallets and slippers can become worrying. Most worrying is losing items and not knowing that one has done so. That's when there's a concern that the keys that have been lost are the keys to one's mind.

This blog is about losing things when one knows one has done so. Everyone is familiar with how frustrating that can be. We've all had the maddening experience of knowing that we just had our glasses on, wandering off to deal with a phone call or knock on the door, only to return and not see our specs where we're sure we left them. We become spectacles, so to speak, looking high and low for our misplaced glasses, racing around, cursing even when we're not prone to so do so, and feeling our blood pressure go through the roof.

It would be interesting to observe people looking for items they have lost. The point wouldn't be to delight in others' misfortunes, though people do take pleasure in seeing others' suffering (so-called schadenfreude). Setting up a study to mock people is unethical; it should never be done. But if the point of the observation is to document and analyze the search process, it could be scientifically worthwhile and, so, ethically justifiable. The main question would be, Where do people look when they realize something is misplaced? Where do they look first, second, third, and so on? If a location is searched once, does that mean it wouldn't be searched again? The way one searches might be linked to how often one loses things, and how one searches might also be related to how successful one is at searching one's own memory.

Raising the possibility of watching people look for lost items leads to the question of whether videos already exist of this behavior. The obvious place to turn is YouTube. When I searched YouTube with the phrase "looking for lost keys" I came across how-to videos on how not to lose things, videos on how to find things, videos selling gadgets for finding lost items, songs about the experience, a staged version of hunting for keys gone astray, and comedy routines about the search process. The best of the comedy routines, at least for me, were by the late George Carlin. He opined that we search in the same places repeatedly and that as we search, we look in places that get stranger and stranger. The freezer isn't the first place you'd look for your lost car keys, Carlin said, but you'd look there if all the other trails went cold. (My delivery of Carlin's message doesn't begin to do justice to the hilarity of his presentation.)

Without pre-existing videos of people looking for lost items, it would be worth making such videos for science. Doing so would either require dumb luck (catching people when they happen to lose things) or sleight of hand in a laboratory setting. The obvious experiment would be to have participants use objects in a task like doing crosswords, have them leave the site, and then, when they return, have them discover that the puzzle book or pencil or some unimportant object on the desktop—a coaster, say—was not where it was before.

Presumably, the more important the object, the more likely participants would be to notice its absence or re-location. The experimenter could either remove the item entirely or move it to another spot. The questions would be, How long do participants take to find the object if it is findable, where do they look, in what order do they look, and do they look in the same place more than once? Two added questions would be, how tolerant would people be to re-locations that are minor as opposed to major, and would their confidence in their own memory drop bit by bit if they encountered many slight re-locations in successive returns to the work area? Those multiple returns could be staged by having subjects do a crossword puzzle (with a pencil) at one site and coloring (with a crayon) at another site, going back and forth between the sites, with the cover story being that the study is about the effects of having to switch locations mid-task. Participants' confidence might decline as the items they worked with weren't where they were before.

Introducing small re-locations would provide a more sensitive test of memory than would complete removal of critical items. In the complete-removal method, subjects would quickly realize that the experimenter was playing games. "Okay, where did you put the pencil?" the subjects would ask, rolling their eyes or possibly fuming. How they searched up to that point would be interesting, but the mini-relocation method might be more interesting, for there it would be possible to see how participants' confidence in their own memory, and how their ability to do the primary task (the crossword puzzle or the coloring task) depended on the series of small re-locations they experienced. Participants whose confidence decreased or whose primary-task performance suffered could be said to have normal memory abilities, whereas participants whose confidence or performance remained unshaken by the re-locations could be said to be at risk for losing their memory abilities.

Being able to pick up coming memory problems through this new, ecologically valid (real-world-like) procedure could justify the slight mischief that the experimenter would have to engage in to use it. The prospect of developing such a memory test could ethically justify the method. All participants would be fully debriefed at the end of the session about the procedure that had been used. Especially if participants' confidence scores on questionnaires indicated that their confidence had dropped, great care would have to be taken to explain that the items that hadn't been exactly where they were before were moved by the experimenter. That aspect of the procedure, along with the other aspects and the motivation behind the study would have to be presented to the institutional review board of the institution where the study was planned. Their approval would be needed and the process of applying to them would be an important, welcome exercise.

In general, if this study hasn't been done—if it's described in an article that I've lost in the depths of my file cabinet or on my computer—it might be worth considering.

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