Monday, January 21, 2008

The Rule of Three

In connection with Vincent Hendricks's recent advice on increasing one's visibility in academic philosophy and the subsequent discussion at Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants, I thought I'd post some of my recent thoughts on academic memory -- what I'll call the "rule of three".

Here's the rule of three: If you devote cognitive attention to an academic matter only once, you will retain no functional memory of it. If you devote attention to that matter twice, you will recognize it vaguely when you encounter it again, but you won't freely recall it. If you devote attention three times, you will be able to freely recall one thing about it.

This works, I think, in the classroom: If a student reads a philosopher, then hears a lecture about that philosopher, then finally studies that philosopher again for the final exam, she will be able for some time afterward to remember some core thing about that philosopher. If she does only two of the above, she will recognize the philosopher vaguely when the name is presented. If she does only one of those things, nothing useful will be retained.

It also works (more to the present point) in the context of getting to know a fellow philosopher. Based on my own experience: If I have no previous acquaintance with a philosopher (through her work or otherwise) and I have a conversation with her at a conference from which nothing further comes, I will not recognize her the next time I see her. If I do this twice, I will have a vague recollection next time I see her. Three times, though, and I'll remember who she is and probably one key fact about her. I suspect many other academics' memories work the same way. Sometimes, a person gets a two-fer or a three-fer in my cognitive space: If the conversation was striking enough that I return to it later in my mind in some extended way, then that's two instances of attention; if we then follow it up with an exchange of interesting emails (for example), that's three instances.

This principle also applies to presentations and publications. If something I hear or read only once is striking enough, or close enough to my current perplexities, that I think about it for some period of time on at least three separate occasions, I will retain the main idea of it (or what seems to me the most important or useful idea given my interests) for a while. However, most work -- especially conference presentations -- regardless of how assiduously I take notes at the time, doesn't command enough of my interest that I return to it seriously later, and consequently a single presentation of the ideas won't stick. It takes some repetition. If I hear it in a presentation, then we chat about it afterward, then I see the published essay, it will stick with me even if I wasn't much enamored of it. The nature and order of these events doesn't matter much: It might be three journal articles (oh, that's the guy who keeps saying the HOT theory of consciousness has flaw X), or three conversations, or two criticisms of the work by other philosophers followed months later by an oral presentation by the author himself, or whatever.

Now of course this rule isn't hard and fast, and what exactly qualifies as an episode of "cognitive attention" is pretty fuzzy (I mean more than seeing the name cited and less than reading an entire book by the person) -- but the implications for improving one's academic visibility (if that's one's aim) should be clear: Go to the same conferences, publish on the same topics, expose yourself to the same people, multiple times -- don't spread yourself thin. And since you shouldn't expect people to retain more than a single core fact about you unless they're exposed to you more than three times, try to have a consistent theme or idea or topic in your work, especially earlier in your career. Something of intermediate specificity is probably best ("consciousness" is too broad, "problems with Schnerdfoot's reply to Huberdike" is too narrow).

Of course maximizing academic visibility may not be your only aim! I often spread myself too thin, from a career-maximizing perspective, from sheer enthusiasm on too many topics.


somweg said...

Some say that remembering new names is more reliable if you repeat the name three times when meeting the new person (this seems anecdotally true in my own case):

"Nice to meet you, Sharon."
"Repeating names helps me remember them, Sharon."
"Goodbye, Sharon."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

So maybe this is the same phenomenon on a larger scale? Yes, maybe!

Is there something special about three, I wonder, other than that it's better than two and not as good as four? Is it some sort of sweet spot?