Randomness in Retrospect: Exploring the Interactions between Memory and Randomness Cognition

By Olivola, Christopher Y.; Oppenheimer, Daniel M. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Randomness in Retrospect: Exploring the Interactions between Memory and Randomness Cognition


Olivola, Christopher Y., Oppenheimer, Daniel M., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


People tend to believe that sequences of random events produce fewer and shorter streaks than is actually the case. Although this error has been demonstrated repeatedly and in many forms, nearly all studies of randomness cognition have focused on how people think about random events occurring in the present or future. This article examines how our biased beliefs about randomness interact with properties of memory to influence our judgments about and memory for past random events. We explore this interaction by examining how beliefs about randomness affect our memory for random events and how certain properties of memory alter our tendency to categorize events as random. Across three experiments, we demonstrate an interaction between randomness cognition and three well-established but distinct properties of memory: (1) the reconstructive nature of memory, (2) primacy and recency effects, and (3) duration neglect. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Human reasoning about randomness is systematically biased (Nickerson, 2004). People seem to believe that small samples of random events are representative of the true distribution of possible outcomes (Kahneman & Tversky, 1972).1 This leads many to fall prey to the classic gambler's fallacy: the belief that streaks (i.e., repetitions of an event) are more likely to end than chance would dictate. This erroneous conception of randomness is so strong that when a sequence of events seems to violate it, people often reject the hypothesis that the underlying process is random (Falk & Konold, 1997).

We use the term randomness cognition to refer broadly to the set of beliefs, mental representations, schemata, and reasoning processes that people use to think about random events and processes. Research has established that our erroneous beliefs affect the way we generate (Wagenaar, 1972), make predictions about (Croson & Sundali, 2005), and identify (Ayton & Fischer, 2004) random sequences of events; however, almost all studies of randomness cognition have focused on how people think about random events occurring in the present or future. Very little research has examined how people think about past random events.

Studies exploring the connections between memory and randomness cognition have examined how working memory governs the prediction or generation of future random events (see, e.g., Baddeley, Emslie, Kolodny, & Duncan, 1998; Kareev, 1992), assessed how the difficulty of encoding a sequence into memory affects its perceived randomness (Falk & Konold, 1997), or tested memory for events that incidentally involved randomness cognition (recalling choices in competitive games in which randomizing was optimal; Budescu & Rapoport, 1994). To our knowledge, however, no studies have systematically explored randomness in retrospect-how beliefs about randomness interact with properties of memory to influence the way we judge and remember past random events.

This article aims to fill this empirical void. We examine both directions of this relationship-how beliefs about randomness affect what we remember, and how properties of memory affect what we believe is random. We focus on three well-documented properties of memory: its reconstructive nature (Experiment 1), primacy and recency effects (Experiment 2), and duration neglect (Experiment 3). In the experiments we report, participants performed one trial of a serial memory task involving a long sequence of binary events, before recalling the sequence (Experiment 1) or judging its randomness (Experiments 2 and 3).

EXPERIMENT 1

Reconstructive Memory

Memory is fallible, involving active reconstruction of past events through the use of knowledge and beliefs about the world (Bartlett, 1932). Our memory system stores the essential elements and later fills in the missing bits and pieces via top-down processing, much as our perceptual system functions (Roediger, 1996). …

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