Author Archives: swong

Is Winning $324M Better Than Winning $1M?

On March 30, a production manager named Richard Wahl won Mega Millions and will be receiving $324,600,000. However, this is not the reality of many people who play the lottery, especially since the odds of winning the jackpot is only 1:302,575,350 according to the Mega Millions website. This was only Wahl’s second time purchasing a Mega Millions ticket, but some people purchase dozens of tickets a year. This brings up the question as to why anyone would play any sort of jackpot that has such a low probability of winning.

The utility theory would suggest that nobody would buy tickets because the probability of winning is much lower than the probability of losing, so the utility would be negative. The utility theory suggests that people will estimate the expected utility and make a choice based on the best option, which in this case, would be to not purchase a lottery ticket.

However, the utility theory has evidence against it since people can make different choices based on something such as wording and availability, which would not impact the equation used to calculate expected utility. The prospect theory of probability tells us that people have a higher weighted probability when the actual probability is low, and a lower weighted probability when the actual probability is high. This means that for most probabilities, other than around the 20% probability mark, people either overestimate or underestimate the likelihood of an event occurring. The probability of winning the Mega Millions is extremely low, yet people are still able to imagine, or even believe, that they could realistically win millions of dollars. This allows lottery players, such as Richard Wahl, to be risk seekers and play Mega Millions.

Wahl described in an interview that he felt paralyzed when he won what he initially thought was $1 million. He and his family are middle-class, so one million dollars would feel extremely good to him, explaining why he felt unable to bring his ticket with him anywhere or leave it at home, causing his Easter plans to be cancelled. Although the CNN article does not discuss how Wahl’s reaction changed when he realized his ticket would give him over $300 million, he likely did not feel too much happier than he did when he thought it was $1 million. This can be explained by the prospect theory of value function.

Since Wahl won Mega Millions, any amount would be a gain. This would mean that his happiness would be higher than it was before he had extra money. However, even though $1M to $324M is a much larger difference than his baseline amount of money to $1M, happiness would not increase as much between when he thought he won $1M and after his realization that he won more. This is because as you have more of something, such as money, it has less value to that person. This leads me to believe that realizing he would be $323 million richer than he thought he would be with the $1 million win, he likely did not experience as much of an increase in happiness. This seems to be confirmed by Wahl’s goals, such as restoring a Corvette, retiring, and helping a few relatives financially; most of which could have been achieved with only the original $1 million.

As long as people are willing to be risk seekers and spend a few dollars in order to potentially win millions, Mega Millions will stay in business because of the prospect theory. Richard Wahl is one of the few people who have won, and the fact that he has been on the news so much lately impacts availability. Many people will remember the last person who won, so they are more likely to predict that they have a possibility of winning as well and purchase a ticket themselves. I would not personally buy a Mega Millions ticket because I see it as nearly impossible to win, which means I have a more moderate probability weighing and the difference between the actual probability and how I act is less than someone with more severe probability weighing.

Stan’s Repressed Memory

Flashbulb and repressed memories took the lead in season eight, episode ten of American Dad: Blood Crieth Unto Heaven. Francine, Stan’s wife, decides to host a surprise party for Stan’s birthday. Very early in the episode, he declares that he hates birthdays without much explanation. It is later that he begins talking about his eighth birthday party in such detail and  emotion, that is appears to be a flashbulb memory, which is an autobiographical memory that is filled with vividness and emotion. This conclusion can be made based on the images of the show, such as Stan clearly seeing clothes being packed up, and a hand taking away the suitcase. The red lighting in this image accurately reflects the vivid emotion Stan is feeling as he tells this story.

Stan claims that he “remembers everything so clearly” about that party. This was the day that Stan’s father left his family, and Stan declares that the biggest memory he had was his “dad packing up and walking out” on them. Stan seems completely confident in his original story, but it has been found that confidence and accuracy are not related. Additionally, studies after 9/11 found that 37% of people who had flashbulb memories of the event gave a substantially different account a year later, but were still confident in their story.

American Dad succeeds in supporting both of these findings. At a later time in the episode, Stan repeats the story, this time talking to his father. Many of the details, such as it being his eighth birthday party, having a cake, clown, and guest of honor, all remain the same. However, this time, Stan witnesses his father suddenly walking into a taxi during the party, stating that he wants to get as far away from his family as possible.

The story changed from Stan’s father packing up and leaving, to his father surprisingly leaving. Young Stan (who is holding a green dog balloon) is clearly shocked in this scene. He was focused on his birthday party, and did not see his father pack up, as he did in the original story. However, Stan is still completely confident in this new version of the story. He likely never actually saw his father packing, as he claimed to in the first story, but rather added that into his story, and the way he remembers that day. Memory is reconstructive, and schemas allow us to assume things because they happen most of the time. In order for Stan’s father to leave with a small suitcase, he must have packed some of his items. Stan’s memory of his birthday is also negative, so he is much more likely to believe that most of that day was filled with negative emotion. Both of these can lead to the conclusion that Stan witnessed his father packing his bags and leaving as Stan screamed at him not to go.

Another explanation in addition to schemas leading to the reconstruction of his memory is that similar memories were combined into one experience. Stan had many childhood problems with his father, and it is possible that he saw his father pack at some previous time, and attributed that event to the day his father left permanently. Another explanation for flashbulb memories being inaccurate is through rehearsal, in which the original memory is combined with the memory of telling the story again and again, with the story changing slightly each time. However, Stan did not tell this story until during this party, so this was not the situation for this episode.

This episode finally ends with a repressed memory being recovered. Stan, whether he witnessed his father packing or not, did not know why his father left until he popped a balloon at his current-day party. He claims that he remembers a pop like that one the day his father left. He then has a flood of memories, in which he popped the green balloon the clown made, went to search for his mother, and heard a honking from her bedroom. When he opened the door, she was having intercourse with a clown. His father then reveals that it was him dressed as a clown.

Repressed memories, or an event that is encoded, actively forgotten, and then later recalled, are not generally remembered outside of things such as hypnosis and repression therapy. In 1997, Loftus found that 87% of first recovered repressed memories happen in therapy, making Stan one of the minorities.

Although there is question over whether repressed memories are real or if therapists are helping patients create memories, which is seen in the high percentage of people who “remember” during therapy, and in the fact that most of these people are also easily influenced and good candidates for hypnosis, it is interesting that this specific balloon pop led Stan to remember. I am sure his two children have had birthday parties, in which a balloon likely popped at some point. And even if none did, most people would experience hearing a balloon pop sometime between the age of eight and their middle ages.

This makes me wonder if he remembered this time because he was already talking about the event throughout the day or because it was Stan’s first birthday party since that day. The exact way that repressed memories are suddenly recalled is still unclear and controversial, so more research would have to be completed. A 2012 study found that even though childhood trauma is not correlated with recovered memories, trauma is correlated with fantasy proneness, which is itself related to recovered memories. This relationship is not very direct, but it is a step in explaining who is likely to experience recovered memories, even if they are not remembered in therapy.

I am overall skeptical of both repressed memories’ existence because of the correlation that Loftus found, and flashbulb memories’ accuracy because of the 9/11 study findings. However, this episode did an amazing job of capturing the controversy of these two topics by telling Stan’s story.

American Dad Season 8, Episode 10

Memorization is as Easy as Pi

Akira Haraguchi, a man residing in Japan, was able to memorize 111,700 digits of pi. I am not sure about everyone else, but I have been able to memorize 3.14159, and this number was looped around more of my classroom walls than I would like to admit. My six memorized digits match the 7 +/- 2 digit span task that we have learned about. Of course, we now know that people can hold 7 +/- 2 chunks, so the only question is, how did Haraguchi manage to put 111,700 digits into five to nine chunks? Has he increased his working memory? This is where it gets complicated.

Haraguchi assigned each digit several syllables. In his interview, he reveals that the number zero is assigned the syllables o, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wo, on, or oh. This puts his chunking at the maximum of nine, and he continues this for the rest of the numbers. Of course, there are ten number (0-9) in which he must memorize, so it might be assumed that his chunking capabilities are slightly higher than the average person’s. Now we know that each number is assigned various syllables, but how does that help him remember the order of pi? Haraguchi reveals that he has created over 800 stories by combining the syllables into words, the words into sentences, and so on.

This is utilizing deep processing, since he is giving meaning to numbers, which will lead to better recall later. Additionally, he sees pi as equal to saying the Buddhist mantra, which indicates that he has made it personal. This also helps with recall. His working memory has not (and could not) increased, but he has found a way around the five to nine digit “limit.” This is a lot more exciting than the 110 digits memorized by Steve using race times. The next question is: how could Haraguchi possibly remember the exact wording of all these stories, and in the right order?

One way Haraguchi might be ensuring that this does not occur is by rehearsing. He recites 25,000 digits a day, dedicating three hours of his life to saying numbers by telling stories. As Reisberg discussed in chapter eight of Cognition, along with nearly every teacher I have had since high school, you are more likely to be able to recall something if it was learned well originally, and if you revisit the material later by practicing it. Haraguchi is essentially quizzing himself on part of pi every day, helping him to remember the order of the story, and thus the number.

I know The Guardian is not the best place to find “real” psychological news, but I was disappointed that there were not more details about how he memorizes pi. The chunking and meaning all make sense, but even by practicing 25,000 digits a day, how does he memorize 111,700 digits without mixing up the order of the stories or using a synonym for a word (I know that I never end up using the exact wording of a story twice). This is briefly explained when Haraguchi states that the first hundred digits are all about humans, but if there are over 100,000 digits and the first story chunk is only one-hundred, the rest must be much larger chunks in order to meet the 7 +/- 2, or he has much more than nine chunks.

My guess is that he splits his chunks into chunks, but did not mention it during the interview. Perhaps the first 15,000 digits are stories about living things, which break up into humans, cats, dogs, trees, etc. The next 15,000 may be household items, and include stories about couches, silverware, etc. Perhaps even these categories are split into smaller parts. I initially thought it would be impossible to memorize over 100,000 digits (the 110 discussed in class seemed incredible!), but I now believe that with many years of dedication and practice, it is possible. This does, however, leave me with the question: is there a limit to how many chunks within chunks a person can have? My best guess is yes, since the 7 +/- 2 chunks seems to hold true.

One possibility

Here is a diagram I created to explain my best guess of how Haraguchi memorizes so many digits. He stated that he uses the ones I labeled “humans,” “words,” “syllables,” and “numbers,” and I inferred the “living things” and “staying positive” in order to explain how 800 stories can be placed in 7 +/- 2. Notice that there are six steps that I created for my possible explanation, which still goes along with the chunking theory.

Although this article was mostly informal (such as asking Haraguchi how he plans on spending March 14), the questions and information about how he is able to remember so many digits fascinated me. I was disappointed that there were a few gaps I had to do my best to fill in so that the cognitive psychology would make sense (there is no way 800 stories are only split into humans, animals, and plants because that would be many more than nine stories per genre), but I would be interested in future interviews with Haraguchi explaining his process of memorization in more detail. Is my theory correct? Do you think you could memorize over 100,000 digits? This kind of memorization would require a lot of attention and effort; probably more than I have.


Marriage with Retrograde Amnesia

Although my memory of my loved ones has never failed me, the same cannot be said for many people. Gita Nandi, an 81-year-old wife and retired doctor is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, leading to retrograde amnesia. Gita’s symptoms began by being unable to remember what she had done the same day, and eventually worsened until she did not recognize her loved ones, and could remember no details about her wedding day with her husband, Pabitra. Retrograde amnesia is the brain being unable to remember anything from the past, which can lead to a loss of identity for many people.

Even as Gita lost her memories, Pabitra did not give up on his wife. After discussion with Gita’s doctor, he decided to recreate every detail of their wedding day, 55 years later, so that Gita could have a few more hours to remember their wedding. While the method of savings may have allowed Gita to remember the details from 55 years ago if she did not have Alzheimer’s, she unfortunately does. Gita was able to experience her wedding as if it were happening for the first time, making it all the more precious of a memory, even if it would be brief.

This article focuses on Pabitra’s attempts to “make” his wife remember her life, leading it to create a sense of hope by leaving out the scientific details of the retrograde amnesia that accompanies Alzheimer’s. This may lead people to believe that the “best” course of action when a loved one suffers from retrograde amnesia is to recreate memories until the method of savings works, which is not the case. The method of savings states that after learning (or doing) something once and then doing it again later, it will be learned faster the second time. However, Alzheimer’s causes changes to the brain itself, so the feeling of, “Oh yeah! I have seen/done this before” once you have a preview of what “this” is will no longer occur.

While I have no criticism for the article’s research (because there was none), I believe that by not including any, people who have no prior knowledge of retrograde amnesia may be given unrealistic hopes about their loved ones remembering a person, day, or detail if they are reminded about it enough times, which may not be the case, especially if it is in the later stages of the disease. Additionally, the article states that Pabitra talked to Gita’s doctor before recreating the memory, so it would have been helpful for people facing similar situations to know why the doctor thought it would be a good idea. One possible explanation would be that it would temporarily return Gita’s identity, which was likely being lost as her memories were.

These recreated memories will serve just like new ones, since the amnesia does not allow the older memories to be recalled. I myself thought “aww” when I read this article, but I cannot help but wonder if recreating memories benefits the person with retrograde amnesia more, or the person trying to “make” them remember. Nobody wants to forget the best day(s) of their life, but nobody wants to remember those days alone when the person they shared the memories with is sitting in front of them.

Research has allowed us to develop medications that lesson the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as memory loss, at all stages of the disease, there is not yet a cure, and we are unable to prevent it from progressing. Once someone has progressed the point where they cannot recognize the people they spent their entire lives with, such as family members, they will unfortunately be unable to restore all of their lost memories, which Pabitra seems to be attempting by recreating several memories, including their wedding. This is shown in the image below, showing that when a person suffers from Alzheimer’s, their hippocampus, which deals with long-term memory, shrinks, making them physically unable to restore their memories from a visual reminder.

Image from Good Morning Center

I cannot begin to imagine what I would do if my spouse of five decades suddenly did not remember the entire life we shared together, but I would likely be willing to do anything if I thought it might cause him to remember something about our past. Articles such as these will always give me the thought of “that’s true love,” but they should also provide more information about the diseases people hear so much about, but know little of. I believe that when we know our loved ones are at the end of their lives, we should do everything we can to put a smile on their face every day, like Pabitra does, but we should also be careful that we are expecting more of our loved ones than they are capable of. The prominent emotion should be love at the end of someone’s life, not disappointment.