Illustration for article titled The Recency Bias makes us permanent amnesiacs

With time we are meant to gain experience. This doesn't always seem to be the case. Recency biases show we don't learn over time so much as remember the last thing that happened, and pretend that that's the way it has always been and will always be.


How long is your memory? Doesn't matter. No matter what long-term knowledge you have access to, you're likely to be fooled into thinking that something you noticed recently has just popped up - even if you've been seeing it your whole life. Often you see this during news programs in which anchors fret about Kids These Days, but Arnold Zwicky, a linguist, thinks it's an example of recency illusion.

When some linguistic quirk catches a person's attention it appears to them as if the language is flooded by this new use of words. Actually, it's their focus, and not the language, that has changed. Zwicky cites as examples people who hate that the pronoun "they" is substituted for the "he" when speaking of a hypothetical person or of someone of an unknown gender. Is it a heinous example of modern political correctness? Actually, it's been used as far back as Shakespeare and Austen. A similar illusion is at work for people who believe that the Grocers' Apostrophe - the signs by the side of the road that read "Peach's $1 per pound" - is a demonstration of lack of modern educational rigor. Historians have found similar complaints as long as there have been written signs.


But recency biases don't just erase the past, they change the future. Economists despair over the fact that both large and small transactions are influenced by recent phenomena over critical thinking. Market upturns and downturns are fueled by people who don't consider that markets can work one way one day and the other the next. Even minor transactions are influenced, which is why many people make renovations to their houses to brace them against winter after one spell of cold weather. We can't believe that things have ever been, or will ever be, different than they are right now.

Via New Scientist and The New York Times.

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