A memory experiment & the Queen

A while ago I asked visitors to my blog to sign up for a quick, easy memory experiment and those willing to take part filled in a form that was emailed to me. Read on to find out more about the experiment and the results. Once I’d received an email I would then send the below picture to them with the instructions…

Instructions
1 – open the attachment in paint or photoshop or something similar
2 – imagine the circle represents the ‘heads’ side of a £1 (GBP)
3 – draw, from memory, what the coin face looks like including as much detail as you can
4 – save the new picture as ‘hayley memory experiment joe bloggs’ – but replace Joe Bloggs with your name (don’t worry, I wont share your name, it’s just for admin)
5 – email it back to this email address by Thursday evening at the latest
(It’s important that you do not cheat by looking at a £1 coin and I trust you to be honest. It’s also important not to share what the test involved.)
If you want to do the experiment yourself to see how accurate you can be then do so now and do not read on…
It was a simple memory test that I wanted to conduct out of curiosity as I had once seen Brian Brushwood use the results of a similar experiment to demonstrate how bad our memories can be in a talk entitled ‘Scams, Sasquatch & the Supernatural’.
Watch the below video until about 1:10 to see what I mean (you can watch further into the interest talk too, the word memory test that Brian goes on to do with his audience is something else I copied when speaking at a paranormal conference once, and I got exactly the same results with my audience. Really interesting stuff.)
Once I had sent out the blank one pound coin image and the instructions I soon began to receive completed one pound coins back from people and it’s pretty fair to say that they were all fairly inaccurate. I only got 23 responses, and of course, this isn’t a controlled experiment in any way, but I still think it is a good demonstration of how our memories really aren’t that reliable at all, and therefore cannot be relied upon alone for evidence or proof when it comes to testimonies.It’s pretty safe to say that the people who took part in this experiment handle £1 coins regularly, and yet when asked to draw what one side of the coin looked like they were unable to do so correctly. I can’t either, by the way, and I’ve purposefully studied a £1 coin to see how accurate other peoples drawings were!
A £1 coin has the queens head facing to the right with a row of tiny dots all around the outer edge of the coin. Beneath the row of small dots and to the left and right of the queens head are the words:
[ELIZABETH II  D.G.REG.F.D.’year’]
Out of the 23 participants to my experiment:
10 people got the direction the queens head is facing correct
4 people remembered that the year was on the coin
6 people remembered the row of small dots around the edge
4 people got 1 – 3 (out of six) words correct
8 people incorrectly included of ‘£1’ or ‘one pound’ on the coin
1 person included a picture of a tree or plant instead of the queens head
I don’t know if anything can be taken from this experiment by anyone other than myself, and that’s fine. I decided to put this idea to the test myself to see if I got similar results as others have, and I think the above pictures speak for themselves. This is why I cannot happily rely on eye witness testimony alone when it comes to strange experiences that people have had.

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Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

14 thoughts on “A memory experiment & the Queen”

  1. Although I handle coins and cash almost daily, I can’t say that I really look at them, I take then for granted, I can remember someone giving me an old £10 note once and I didn’t realize until I tried to buy something in a shop!

    Of course the experiment is not like actually witnessing something is it? Oftentimes when we witness something happening our body is working differently, adrenaline for starters is kicking in, I wonder what bearing that would have on the experiment?

    As fallible as the mind is, eyewitness testimony is still the mainstay of most justice systems but of course there, we often have corroborating evidence? But in the case of anomalous phenomena all we often have is eyewitness testimony and as has been shown, the mind and therefore eyewitnesses can be wrong. Where does that leave the paranormal/supernatural? Well of course if all we have is eyewitness testimony and that testimony is suspect we have NOTHING to support such beliefs. So why bother researching the none existent, apart from making woo people look stupid? 😉

    Still, thankfully, there is enough pseudo-science and woo nonsense to keep skeptics going, else what would we do with our time? 🙂

    1. If you just take money for granted when handling it in your job then of course you’re going to take old notes and probably be scammed. The whole point of this experiment is to show that something we witness can be misremembered after witnessing it. Humans fill in the gaps without meaning to.

      Although testimony is accepted in court in some cases (I don’t know the full extent as I don’t work in courts) it is not the same as accepting testimony as proof that something exists. I saw a flying unicorn yesterday, therefor you must accept they exist. Doesn’t work like that…

      Regarding ‘all we have is testimony’. That’s not true as I spend the majority of my time researching recorded phenomena that has often been misinterpreted by the person who caught it. What I do has nothing to do with making moo people look stupid – besides, I detest calling people woo. There are “woo” ideas, not woo people. You’re very dismissive.

    2. It ate my post!!!

      No I don’t work with money, the tenner was a sly move by someone else lol

      We know that the paranormal is bunk, so why waste time proving that it is bunk? All we have is testimony, any ‘physical’ evidence just proves for a real world explanation. There is no ‘evidence’ of a psychic being right or that a UFO or ghost really exists. Why does skepticism waste it’s time proving woo to be wrong? What can it achieve but prove to cynics and skeptics what they already know? Preaching to the converted, a wasted effort? Skeptics are certainly not going to convert the fantasy woo folk that they are wrong.

      If I seem very dismissive it is because I have little time for fantasy, science is there every day of our lives and it explains all that we need explaining. Anything else is bunk.

    3. As I say to everyone who makes the same comments as you have, go tell James Randi, Joe Nickell or Ben Radford that being skeptical about the paranormal is a waste of time. Bet you wouldn’t.
      Additionally, skeptics don’t try to prove the paranormal is bunk as the burden of proof doesn’t work like that – surely you know that? Not to mention the fact that your statement “all paranormal is bunk” is extremely dismissive and closed minded. Are you sure you’re a skeptic?

      You might want to read my post about the flawed arguments you are making: http://hayleyisaghost.co.uk/2011/02/17/the-ghostly-token/

  2. Another terrific post Ms Stevens.

    I so enjoy that you and your skeptical crew in the UK “do” things like experiments and are active with your advertising standards agency and don’t just write snarky posts from the perspective of, “I’m so much smarter than you…” that too many people in this community seem to have. This item, while not controlled in a scientific manner, demonstrates the very real problem that eye witnesses have with reliability.

    Rock on!
    Gonz

  3. QI mentioned this in one of their shows. All the contestants were asked to draw the Queen’s head on a circle, and they
    all drew it the same way- facing right. They were astonished when they were told, and shown, that the head actually faces to the right. A large (I forget the figure) fraction of the populace do the same. The theory is that people are confusing the coin head with the stamp head…which faces left. On this basis, I’d say this is nothing to do with false memories, its to do with two memories becoming intertwined.

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