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May 11, 2024 62 mins

In this classic episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe discuss the so-called “telephone game,” in which a whispered message travels through a chain of individuals and is eventually announced again in an altered form. What does this game reveal about communication and what else can we learn from it? (part 1 of 2, originally published 05/02/2023)

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name
is Robert Lamb.

Speaker 2 (00:09):
And I am Joe McCormick, and it's Saturday. We are
heading into the vault for an older episode of the podcast.
This one originally published May second, twenty twenty three, and
it's part one of our series about the game of
telephone and related research on how information is transmitted orally.

Speaker 1 (00:28):
A Dame of telephone. All right, let's do it.

Speaker 3 (00:34):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 1 (00:44):
Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind. My name
is Robert.

Speaker 2 (00:48):
Lamb and I am Joe McCormick, and today we wanted
to begin a series on the show talking about the
telephone game. Many of you probably already know the general
contours of a telephone game. Just in case anybody escaped
childhood without playing this, describe how it often goes. So
you might gather all the players in the room and

arrange them in a line or in a big circle.
We always played it in a circle at my elementary school.

Speaker 1 (01:15):
Yeah, oh yeah, you played it in a circle too,
Yeah yeah, And I was about to say, very much
an elementary school sort of game. This would be where
I remember playing it from.

Speaker 2 (01:26):
So you begin with a secret message. I think maybe
often a teacher came up with the message, but I
guess a kid could too. The main thing is not
everybody gets to hear it at the beginning. The message
can be a varying lengths or genres. Usually it was
like a phrase or a sentence length, and for the
purpose of some of the experiments we're going to look

at later in this episode, it tends to get longer.
It's like a full narrative length, and that's where you
can start really seeing interesting things about how messages change
across generations of retelling. But for the purpose of the
kid game, yeah, it's often like a sentence. So let's
say the phrase for our example is this sentence he
learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature

and because of it, the greatest in the universe. So
somebody takes that message, they whisper it into the ear
of the first player in the line, and then that
player turns and whispers it back from memory as best
they can to the next player, and then on down
the line it goes. So each player is hearing what

the other player's impression of the message was, and when
it gets to the end, you reveal two things to
the whole group, what the original message was and what
final message emerged from the chain of players. Now, if
you played this game with the man as a feeling
creature message, and you played it with like a group

of I don't know, twenty elementary school kids, I would
imagine you'd end up with something radically different at the
end than what you started with, maybe something about peeling potatoes.
And then probably also, to be honest, if I remember
how this went with kids, something about like it might
end with the phrase and his head was made of
poo poo or something.

Speaker 1 (03:12):
Yeah. Yeah, Because any any group of school kids, you're
gonna have some conscientious kids in there that are trying
to contain and accurately reproduce the message. But you're also
gonna have some distracted kids, and you're gonna have some troublemakers.

Speaker 2 (03:24):
But hey, hats off to the trouble makers, because in
this case, you know, introducing weirdness to the message on
purpose is half of the game. So there are several
different ways that I think changes to the message are
usually introduced in this form of the game. You know,
whispering ear to ear among school kids. Number one is

errors of hearing or speaking, So you might mistake a
word in the message for a sound to like word
like a man is a feeling creature might turn into
something about peeling, and then that could be confusing, and
then something about peeling potatoes.

Speaker 1 (03:59):
You know.

Speaker 2 (03:59):
On down the line, you could of course have errors
of memory forgetting what the second half of the sentence is,
or forgetting particular word choices, you know, transforming a phrase
into a kind of rough gist of the phrase instead
of getting the words right. And then finally you just
have deliberate changes. And concerning those deliberate changes, I think

it's important to point out that ostensibly the purpose of
the game is to see if you can preserve the
message intact, but a lot of children playing lose sight
of this goal and instead play with the goal of
introducing the funniest or most entertaining variations on the original message. Because,
after all, if you are playing in order to preserve

the message as best you can, the sort of win
condition the optimal outcome is also the most boring outcome.
It's like, oh wow, it's stayed the same the whole
way around, okay, But the more catastrophic your failure, the
more entertaining the game becomes.

Speaker 1 (05:00):
Yeah, and a lot of this comes back to the
fact that children generally have a very unbalanced and honestly
developing sense of humor. They don't realize that the true
humor of the game comes out of an organic attempt
to accurately reproduce the data, and that if you were
to intentionally tweak it for entertainment's sake, you would have

to do so with care, because if it drifts too far,
if at the end it just becomes this, this, this, this,
this spill of of of childhood obscenities, then it's it's
not funny, it's it's meaningless. But it's still probably going
to end in laughter for these children. I mean they're
the audience after all.

Speaker 2 (05:40):
Yeah, I think genuine mistaken nonsense is the more deeply
satisfying form of comedy. Then, you know, attacking on his
head was made of poo poo to the end of
the sentence. But you know, when you're a kid, you
can't really resist, right. So I was thinking about, you know,
my memories of playing this game, and we did play
this game at my elementary school, and I was kind
of wondering why we played it as children, I assume

it was to teach us not to believe everything we hear,
to give a kind of stern example about the pernicious
power of rumors. But in my experience, kids always quickly
figure out that the real point of the game is,
like we said, to change the message on purpose to
be more entertaining, or usually to be you know, more

nonsensical or more scatological. The game works very differently if
everyone isn't committed to trying to preserve the message intact.
But then again, I guess you could say that even
with people throwing scatological nonsense in the gear is just
for fun, it still sort of works as a lesson
about the real world fallibility of word of mouth transmission chains,

because you know, the same thing happens there really in
a less obvious and less immediate form. But when people
retell a story or a rumor about their classmates, they
also will often introduce details in order to make it
more entertaining in their view on the retelling.

Speaker 1 (07:07):
Yeah, yeah, I have to say that I don't remember
any kind of lessons attached to being made to play
this game in like elementary school or what have you.
It's just kind of like, this is what we're doing.
We're about to kill some time with a fun game,
and you know, and then the game, of course, just
descends into nonsense and childhood laughter, and that at some

point the adults that are carrying this out realize that
it's gone too far and we need to get these
kids involved in something else. But yeah, as we'll be
discussing on the show here, like, there are a lot
of different ways you can crack this nut, a lot
of different ways you can think about it. And I'll say,
the other thing that comes to mind is that I

can't help but make this connection between this game and
humor based on intentionally mishearing something. M Yeah, this was
really big in my family, to the point that I
think it was a bit overdone and got a little
annoying at times. And I don't know if that was
us or if that meant for all I know, maybe

it was fueled by everyone having played the Telephone game
in school, Like maybe it teaches you that, hey, if
you slightly mishear something, it becomes more fun and you
can just sort of revel in that, you know, and
why save the world when you can Save the Squirrel. Ha.
It's instantly funny, but it easily gets out of hand

if you just keep going back to that. Well.

Speaker 2 (08:34):
Well, it's a common genre of joke on Mystery Science
Theater three thousand to take a kind of mumbled, hard
to hear Lyne and say, wait a minute, what did
he say about cheese?

Speaker 1 (08:43):
Yeah? I mean it's a great way to just tweak
something a little bit, create something that's minimally counterintuitive, something
that has just the right level of absurd. Again, assuming
a child is not, you know, doing this just willy nilly,
just drive things a little bit off the road into
the realm of humor. Yeah, it's an easy way to

get there.

Speaker 2 (09:04):
For other variations on the basic idea of the game,
I was looking around and I came across one thing
I'd never played or even heard of before. But there
is apparently a variation called apologies for the name of this.
I don't know where this comes from, but it is
called Eat Poop You Cat. And it's the same as
the telephone game, except you play it on a piece

of paper, and at each stage of transmission you alternate
back and forth between text and drawing, which I think
is a fantastic idea. So you start with a text message,
the first person has to represent that as a picture,
and then the next person has to translate that picture
into text, and then back to a picture, then back

to text, and so on and so I think in
that format, especially because at the end you have a
written document of each stage of transmission that everybody can
inspect and enjoy it. That sounds like a much more
satisfying version of the game.

Speaker 1 (10:00):
Yeah, I agree, terrible title, that makes it a little
difficult to research online. But yeah, I'd not heard of
this one. Yeah, same concepts of going back and forth
between drawings and written sentences rather than depending on a
chain of whispers. Not sure about its origins, but I
did notice that it's listed on board game Geeks due

to its popularity as a party game, but not because
it's like a typical board game or card game or
something of that nature. It's just like a party game
of parlor game, and it seems to be popular, though
I'd never heard of it before. Now there are a
lot of additional alternate names for the Telephone Game. In fact,
some of you might have gone into this episode wondering, well,
what is the telephone game. What are they talking about?

A lot of the names for what we're talking about
here do and seem to involve the technological metaphor of
the telephone, though at this point I guess it's increasingly
an outdated metaphor an outdated reference. We might need to
explain what a telephone is, because we're not talking about
a tiny pocket computer. We're talking about ultimately allusions to

like mid twentieth century telephones.

Speaker 2 (11:08):
One of the early sources that I was reading about
a version of this game, which I'll get into later
in this episode, referred to it as a variation on
the quote Russian scandal. I've never heard of that name.

Speaker 1 (11:20):
Yeah, I'll come back to that in just a minute.
There are still other names that invoke snail mail, just
traditional mail, gossip, or listening. Though there is one major
name for this alternate name for it that's worth mentioning
because it actually is the primary name for this game
in many areas. In fact, if you look up the
Telephone game, say just a quick Google search or something,

you will find that say that the Wikipedia article, for example,
is not about the Telephone game. That is not the
title of the entry. The title of the entry is
Chinese Whispers. Now I have to admit that, yeah, I'd
never heard of Chinese whispers. I'd only heard of the
Telephone game. And I was a bit and I was
a bit surprised and a bit worried when I saw
that in the United Kingdom, in Australia and in New Zealand,

this is the primary name for it. And I was
afraid that there is going to be something at least
xenophobic in the tradition here. And it's interesting that it's
not an antiquated name for the game in these regions
as well. For instance, there are plenty of academic papers
that I ran across from twenty twenty three even that
use this terminology, where it's sometimes dealt with directly as

a concept, like some of the papers will be referring
to in a bit, and other times it's used as
a metaphor for something or just a snappy title. Now
what does this mean? Where does it come from? Well,
the primary explanations I've run across focus on the idea
of it being a mashup of whispers themselves being difficult
to understand. Again, that's how the game kind of works,
and this idea of the Chinese language, being from a

Western standpoint, arguably difficult a difficult language to learn. However,
I've also seen sources acknowledge that this could at least
be misinterpreted as referring to as a language that is
pure confusion or something along those lines, and of course
this would be very xenophobic way of approaching things. There
also seems to be some level of influence from the

ideal of Cold Wars and espionage here, which again is
particularly fair, as Junte Huang points out in Chinese Whispers
published in Verge Studies in Global Asians from spring twenty fifteen.
The term became popular mid twentieth century, and other Cold
War influenced and unnecessarily nationalistic names for the game include
Russian scandal, Russian gossip, and Russian telephone Now interesting. The

author also points to a pair of thought experiments linked
or possibly linked to the Telephone game that I think
are probably worth mentioning here. One stems from American scientist
Warren Weaver, who lived eighteen ninety fourth through nineteen seventy eight,
who apparently in a nineteen forty seven letter to MIT's
Norbert Weiner, commented on a translation problem and communication problem

writing quote. It is very tempting to say that a
book written in Chinese is simply a book written in
English which was coded into the Chinese code. Of course,
this is not exactly how it works. You know, we
discussed linguistic differences on the show before in translations, but
I think that's part of what Weaver was getting at here.

Speaker 2 (14:18):
I mean, there's not sort of a universal meaning key
where all languages can just be endlessly coded in and
out of each other. That a language, a message in
a language, brings its own peculiarities, and any translation is
always an approximation.

Speaker 1 (14:34):
Yeah, and I think this is perhaps more visible to
people today with access to various online translation tools, like
you don't have to toy around with those much to
realize that you lose something. And in fact not unrelated
to the telephone game. I remember pretty early on when
these translation tools began to become available for some language translations.

One thing you could do is you could take a
phrase like say I don't know a line from Shakespeare
translated into say Spanish or German, and then translated back
into English. Now do you get your perfect example back again?
Does it give you exactly what you put in no,
you end up losing something in the translation and retranslation,
and you can have some sort of telephone game esque

fun that way.

Speaker 2 (15:20):
Whenever online translation first became a thing, I don't know
if that was Babbelfish or babbel dot com or whatever
it was, we thought it was absolutely hilarious to run
Metallica lyrics. They're about ten layers of translation and what
came out was solid.

Speaker 1 (15:37):
How does that still hold up, you think, or have
the translation tools improved or changed over time? I don't know.

Speaker 2 (15:42):
I was actually just trying to do it now and
something wouldn't work, and I mean it was like it
was too close in the end. Maybe there's some AI
detection of like, oh, it looks like you're trying to
translate Metallica lyrics. Let's shape that a little bit closer
to the original.

Speaker 1 (15:56):
All right now. Another example that this author brings up
is this idea that was presented by philosopher John Cyril
born in nineteen thirty two, the concept of the Chinese room.
Some of you may be familiar with this. The Chinese room,
in this thought experiment, is a cell that contains quote
baskets of Chinese characters and a rule book correlating those

symbols to symbols on Chinese texts, texts that are going
to be passed to a single human occupant of the room,
like by you know, sliding them under the door. The
single human occupant of this Chinese room does not know Chinese,
but again these texts are passed under the door to them.
They take these texts, they compare the symbols to the
rule book, and then they get the response symbols out

to build a response, a string of responses that are
then passed back under the door.

Speaker 2 (16:47):
I would say, with the Chinese room thought experiment, the
particular use of Chinese as a language as is not
important to the experiment. It could be any language unknown
to the person in the room.

Speaker 1 (16:58):
Right right, and so hung it up by saying quote.
Although his Chinese interlocutories outside the room consider these strings
to be clever responses to their inquiries, the prisoner actually
has no idea of the meaning of the texts he
has produced. The scenario proves. Cyril argued that a machine
cannot think, just as the prisoner does not know the

meaning of the Chinese texts, so it's meant as a
means of refuting the idea of say strong ai that
reproduces human thought.

Speaker 2 (17:29):
Now, we could spend a whole series of episodes debating
the validity of the Chinese room thought experiment, and in
fact it has come up on the show before. But yeah, basically,
I think cyl is trying to assert that there's something
that goes on when a human is thinking that we
call understanding, meaning when a human manipulates symbols, they have
some deeper recognition of what those symbols mean that has

validity to the whole of existence. Whereas in this experiment,
this is what he considered a machine that can you know,
like a like a chat GPT type machine, one that
can manipulate text and then spit out text that seems
to make sense. He says, Ultimately, it is a machine
manipulating symbols without actually understanding them. There's a ton of

back and forth between philosophers about like what it actually
means to understand, whether a human could truly be said
to understand, whether what we're doing is fundamentally different or not.

Speaker 1 (18:28):
Again, though for our purposes, Chinese language is not really
part of the whole scenario and really won't be something
we're dwelling on moving forward. But if you are interested
in the topic of Chinese language and technology, there's a
great book that came out several years ago, The Chinese Typewriter,
a History by Thomas S. Mulaney. We had him on
the show interviewed him about the book and the topic,

So go back and find that in the archives if
that's what you're interested in. But coming back to the
telephone aka Chinese Whispers, Yeah, I'm going to keep calling
it the telephone game. I have seen some sources online

that steer people away from referring to it as something
like Chinese Whispers or Russian gossip, or whatever the case
might be.

Speaker 2 (19:19):
Yeah, I've only ever known it as the telephone game.
I think that's what basically everybody in the US at
least calls it.

Speaker 1 (19:25):
A more accurate name, though, especially for children, might be
Goofy Whispers.

Speaker 2 (19:28):
I think now, I think you could argue about what
is actually learned or revealed from the version of the
game we described at the beginning, by having kids sit
in a circle and whisper a message in each other's
ears around the chain. But variations on the telephone game
have actually been used in scientific research in psychology studies
going back over one hundred years at this point and

have been very influential. So there are variations on telephone
game experiments that have sometimes been called serial reproduction experiments
or transmission chain experiments. Serial reproduction is very influential in
the history of psychology for understanding a number of different

phenomena communication, cultural transmission, and memory. Serial reproduction experiments were
famously crucial to the work of the British psychologist Frederick
Charles Bartlett often written as F. C. Bartlett, who was
a professor at Cambridge University. But Bartlett discussed serial reproduction

experiments in his very important nineteen thirty two book Remembering
a Study in Experimental and Social Psychology that was all
about phenomena of memory. So serial reproduction was one of
two major techniques that Bartlett studied. The other was called
repeated reproduction, and the difference was, like this repeated reproduction,

you would ask a single person to try to remember
an original piece of information and reproduce it over and
over at different intervals of time. So rob I might
give you a story like a text to read that's
a folk tale or a newspaper article, or a description
of an event, or a passage from a book, anything,

I'd ask you to read it several times, and then
I would ask you to write it down from memory
five minutes later or an hour later, a week later,
a year later, two years later, and see how well
you could remember it. But also, maybe most importantly, what
are the patterns of changes that you observe when you
do this with lots of people. That to me is

a very interesting question. Are there consistent differences what tends
to change when a memory fades over time? Serial reproduction
is a very similar experiment, except you add in the
telephone game element. So one person's attempt to remember the
text becomes the next person's study material, their text to memorize,

and then their attempt to reproduce it becomes the next
person's study material. And you do this on down the
chain with lots of different people, with lots of different
types of text, to see what sorts of trends emerge. Now,
the goal of the repeated reproduction experiments was to sort
of study how people remember the same event over time.
You know, how well do people remember something that happened

to them a year ago or several years ago, or
remember something they read from a year ago and what
tends to change. But the goal of the serial reproduction
study the telephone game version, was to study the effects
of the social transmission of information through word of mouth
in culture or through memory of written sources in culture.

Speaker 1 (22:45):
Yeah, this is fascinating. On one hand, I can't help
but think, like with repeated reproduction, you know, we kind
of engage in this all the time, different people trying
to remember what happened in a movie. We can always
go back and look at the movie, and in many
cases we will go back and look at the movie
and see what actually happened, or trying to remember what
happened in the book. There's still that primary source. But

it makes me think of Fahrenheit four fifty one towards
the end of that, the Ray Bradbury book, where a
book about books being banned, books being burnt, and the
books then having to be committed to memory and then
passed on as an oral tradition again, which means that
you open it up to serial reproduction errors, which I

always found kind of fascinating. Like on one level, I
remember as a young reader of the book, I was like, oh, no, well,
they can't possibly truly memorize I don't know, moby dick,
and then pass it on like how like this seems
like this is such a feat of memory, and then
realizing well, they couldn't possibly keep it all intact. Something
would change, and this would be a process of these

of a literature becoming oral tradition again within these people
that are keeping the books alive until some sort of
regime change can happen and they can all be put
back on paper again.

Speaker 2 (24:00):
Well, it's interesting because I think in that kind of scenario,
what these experiments tend to show is that the original
form of the story would be lost. There would be
radical changes introduced through attempts to serially reproduce, especially a
long text over time, but the people reproducing it would

introduce their own literary flourishes to it, So it would
essentially become no longer the original work of Herman Melville,
but sort of a product of a serial reproduction culture.
So it would have elements of the original story in it,
but it would have elements added in along the way,

some of which get reproduced pretty faithfully and some of
which fade away.

Speaker 1 (24:44):
Yeah, it's kind of interesting to think about this in
terms of remakes of movies, because sometimes it feels more
like a telephone game. What does John Carpenter's The Thing
have to do with the Thing from another world versus
the short story was based on. Other times, things feel
more like serial reproduction, where someone's like, Okay, this new
adaptation is going back to the original source material and

not the most recent film or TV adaptation of the material.

Speaker 2 (25:09):
Though interestingly, there are very different mechanisms in play there,
because it is assumed that a big issue with the
loss of fidelity in serial reproduction is memory, right, people
failing to remember certain elements of the story, and that
failure of memory causes them to either just omit something
or to substitute something else. In the case of remakes,

it's you know, it's choices made for some reason. Presumably
they can always consult the original source. So there all
the changes are, you know, and his head was made
of doo doo or whatever, deliberate changes because the person
thought it would be more entertaining this way or more
marketable or whatever.

Speaker 1 (25:49):

Speaker 2 (25:49):
True, though it's very interesting how One of the things
we'll get into this in a bit. One of the
things revealed in Bartlett's research is that some changes that
we would interpret as not just failures of memory, but
as real editorial changes to a story do creep in
even when people are just faithfully trying to reproduce it.
We unconsciously make editorial changes to narratives.

Speaker 1 (26:13):
Yeah, and it's fascinating to break into that and see
what changes are more likely to be made, why we
make them, etc.

Speaker 2 (26:20):
Now, I thought it might be good to illustrate how
much actually changes in these serial reproduction experiments by reading
the text of one original text give into the subjects
in Bartlet's experiments, and one example of what that text
looked like after ten transmission, after ten links in the
transmission chain. So this is probably the most famous example.

It is a folk tale called the War of the Ghosts.
This is something that Bartlett presents as a Native American
folk tale. Now, I was trying to find out more
about the origins of this folk tale, like specifically what
group people it came from, and when it was first
putting down in writing and so forth. I was not
able to turn up that information, So I can't vouch

for how authentic this is to the actual tradition. The
folk tradition that this written version of the story is
based on but you can say at least that this
written version is the original version for the purpose of
the experiment. Okay, so I'm going to read this original
written interpretation of the story. It's called the War of

the Ghosts. One night, two young men from Egguloch went
down to the river to hunt seals, and while they
were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard
war cries, and they thought maybe this is a war party.
They escaped to the shore and hid behind a log.
Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of
paddles and saw one canoe coming up to them. There

were five men in the canoe, and they said, what
do you think we wish to take you along. We
are going up the river to make war on the people.
One of the young men said, I have no arrows.
Arrows are in the canoe. They said, I will not
go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not
know where I have gone. But you, he said, turning

to the other, may go with them. So one of
the young men went, but the other returned home, and
the warriors went on up the river to a town
on the other side of Kalama. The people came down
to the water, and they began to fight, and many
were killed. But presently the young man heard one of
the warriors say, quick, let us go home. That Indian

has been hit. Now he thought, oh, they are ghosts.
He did not feel sick, but they said he had
been shot. So the canoes went back to Egguloch, and
the young man went ashore to his house and made
a fire, and he told everybody and said, behold, I
accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of

our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked
us were killed. They said I was hit and I
did not feel sick. He told it all, and then
he became quiet. When the sun rose, he fell down.
Something black came out of his mouth, his face became contorted.
The people jumped up and cried he was dead. Very

haunting story.

Speaker 1 (29:17):
I think a little bit of a ghost arrow Elf
arrow action in there too.

Speaker 2 (29:23):
Kind of okay. So Bartlett's method in the serial reproduction
experiments was he would begin with a text like that,
He would let the subject read the text in full
twice over at their own pace, and then fifteen to
thirty minutes later, the subject was asked to reproduce the
passage from memory. Would you like to hear what the
War of the Ghosts looked like in one of these

transmission experiments ten steps down the chain, Oh, let's hear
it the War of the Ghosts. Two Indians were out
fishing for seals in the Bay of man Papan when
along came five other Indians in a war canoe. They
were going fighting. Come with us, said the five to
the two and fight. I cannot come, was the answer

of the one, for I have an old mother at
home who is dependent upon me. The other also said
he could not come because he had no arms. That
is no difficulty. The others replied, for we have plenty
in the canoe with us. So he got into the
canoe and went with them in a fight. Soon afterwards,
this Indian received a mortal wound. Finding that his hour

was come, he cried out that he was about to die. Nonsense,
said one of the others. You will not die, But
he did.

Speaker 1 (30:35):
Absolutely terrible. They're totally ruin, said yes, like all the
great stuff in the original and is gone, like obviously
the stuff with the contorted face and the black bile
leaking out of the mouth, like that's gone, and that
was great. But also the relationship between the two warriors
that was pretty interesting in the original, you know, the

idea that did one kind of like the butt to
the other and it's like, why I can't go but
you can. All that is gone.

Speaker 2 (31:05):
That's the interesting character drama. The atmosphere at the beginning
is lost, the elements that it became that it was
foggy and calm when when the boats arrived. Bartlett himself
points out that the story has changed so so much,
and it's it's in fact, it's changed so much it's
easy to miss lots of the ways that it has changed.

It is drastically shorter. Basically all the supernatural elements have
been removed and it's just left as a material story
of violent conflict with like none of the none of
the ghosts. And it's still called the War of the Ghost,
but there are no ghosts in it.

Speaker 1 (31:41):

Speaker 2 (31:41):
Pretty much all of the cultural conventions in the story
that would have been less familiar to the subjects at
Cambridge trying to reproduce this story, they've been removed or
replaced with more familiar cultural elements, like, for example, just
the use of the word fishing for seals at the beginning.

Speaker 1 (32:00):
And instead of referring to one's relatives back at home,
it's just oh me old mom.

Speaker 2 (32:05):
Yeah. Yeah. And Bartlett points out three major patterns that
have happened to the story. Number one, a series of omissions.
Details are just continually at each stage being left out.
Second is, he says, quote, by the provision of links
between one part of the story and another, and of
reasons for some of the occurrences, that is to say,

by continued rationalizations. So there were things in this story
that might not have made sense to the subject, might
well have made perfect sense to the intended original audience,
but because of cultural unfamiliarity, the subject didn't really understand
why somebody was doing something, so they added in a
rationalization for it. And then the third thing is the

transformation of minor detail, which can snowball into major changes
over serial reproductions.

Speaker 1 (32:59):
Yeah, that's fascinating, And again it's interesting to keep in
mind that, of course, the the oral transmission of stories
was of the original way that we pass these things on.
You know, sometimes you might have some sort of a
text refer back to, or some sort of you know,
iconography or or even like geographic features or what have

you that that help inform the story. But otherwise it's
like it's kind of a miracle that any creative story
remained good over time, right, that it would just I
guess that that speaks to the role of a dedicated,
like storytelling class within a given culture.

Speaker 2 (33:39):
But even in those cases, I think you could not
assume that the story would remain the same. It would
be a tradition, and you might have a core of
a story that is sort of stable over time. But
like storytellers are in a way also story writers when
they reperform. When we when anybody reperforms a story learned orally,

they lose some original detail and supply new details of
their own, so they become a creative participant in the
story tradition.

Speaker 1 (34:11):
Yeah, and if your culture's storyteller happens to be Michael Bay,
then you suddenly there's all these explosions that weren't there.
It's the previous version. It takes on a certain character.

Speaker 2 (34:30):
So in the chapter on serial reproduction in Bartlett's book,
he gives a bunch of different examples and he shows
actually each reproduction along the chain so you can follow
it and see what changes they are introduced at each stage.
It does this for a number of different types of texts,
several different folk tales, different experiments with the same folk tale,

different like newspaper articles or passages from books, like passages
from Ralph Waldo Emerson, or just like stories from the
newspaper about tennis matches, all different kinds of texts, and
he says, in every case, for every genre of information
he has tried, with the exception of what he calls

cumulative stories, and I think this might be stories where
like each little element that happens is logically dependent on
the thing that happened before. And he says, quote the
final result after comparatively few reproductions, would hardly ever be
connected with the original by any person who had no

access to some intermediate versions. There is little doubt that
with the ordinary free handling of material, which is characteristic
of daily life, much more elaboration commonly takes place, though
it is perhaps difficult to imagine that very much more
startling changes could occur. So he's saying that conditions of
the experiment are probably producing higher fidelity transmission than you

would expect in everyday life. Even in this setting, the
changes are drastic.

Speaker 1 (36:03):
Yeah, I mean it brings me back to various folk
tale traditions and legends and myths that we've discussed in
the past, you know, where there's sometimes a question of,
well does the myth in this culture, does this have
an actual connection to this similar myth in another culture
or where are they both independent creations? And you know,

given the amount of drift that would that would take
place if something were transmitted to this other culture, potentially,
I mean you can see where you could go either way,
like like it would just be so so much would
be lost in it becoming a part of this other culture.

Speaker 2 (36:41):
Yes, And this actually connects to a broader idea that
Bartlett has Maybe we can get into this later or
in the next episode, about the idea of schema. His
proposal was that in order to remember something, you don't
just remember the event itself, you encode it with the
help of what he calls a schema or schemata, basically

an existing body of knowledge about the world and about
your culture that can sort of like be a shorthand
for elements of the thing you're trying to remember, and
thus things that fit with your available schema are easier
to remember. And things that don't just kind of either
get transformed to fit your schema or get forgotten. And

this would account for one thing, people's tendency to make changes,
especially to culturally unfamiliar elements from a folk tale from
a different culture. But anyway, at the end of this chapter,
Bartlett was able to document a fairly consistent array of
changes that he thought were most often introduced through serialized retelling.

So I thought it'd be really interesting to look at, like,
what are the changes that happen most often with this
form of the telephone game where you're going you're reading
a text and then you're trying to reproduce it from memory,
and then you go on down the line, what kind
of changes show up the most? So, first of all,
he says, proper names and titles of pieces. He says
consistent across the different examples. Some of the most unstable

details were proper names and titles. And this was true
for every genre of material, with every group of subjects tested. Now,
when it comes to proper names, the examples in the
reproductions printed in the chapter are numerous. I just I
dug through to try to find some particular examples. One
of them comes from a paragraph that was used for

an experiment about evolutionary theory, and the name is a
name to which an argument about evolutionary theory is attributed.
The name is mister Gulick, and the name mister Ghuliic
is transformed into mister Garlic by the second reproduction, and
it stays that way for ten more steps down the chain. Now,

I think it's interesting that Gulick quickly changes to garlic,
but the garlic name doesn't change nearly so easily. It
sticks for many more transmissions. I wonder if that's because
Gulick would have been a relatively unfamiliar name to the subjects,
and of course so would Garlick as a name, Except
Garlick as a name for a scientist is weirdly evocative

of garlic, the food, so it kind of sticks in
the mind.

Speaker 1 (39:17):
Mm hmm. Yeah. And and just in general, so some
of the weirder names are the ones that stick with you.

Speaker 2 (39:22):
But I would say my intuition would be more likely
if it's a word in your language, especially an unusual
word in your language, as opposed to like just a
name that that isn't like a noun in your language,
but is also not one that's very common to you anyway.
There's another example. It's a story about a lawn tennis

match where the name Tilden transforms into Felden and the
name Brooks transforms into Bowden, and then a player named
Captain Wilding becomes Captain wild and then his name just
completely disappears from retelling. And this last pattern reflects that

sometimes names don't just change, they completely disappear. They go
down the drain into anonymity. So you might start with
a story about a man named John Agar who might
then become a man named Garfield, and then he might
just become a man. And Bartlett thinks that it's understandable
that proper names should change through retelling of a story

from memory, because he says, quote, their significance and application
are local and vary from group to group. And this
sort of makes sense to me, like it usually makes
very little difference in a story what the person's name
is unless that name is connected to a known identity.
So it'd be kind of weird if the name of

somebody you knew personally changed, or if the name of
a famous person whose reputation you were familiar with changed.
But since the characters in these stories are usually not
known to the subject. Their names are easily changed or
forgotten completely.

Speaker 1 (41:00):
So if you were given a story about Yvonne and
you didn't know that Yvonne is an important character in
a body of folklore, you know, particularly like Russian folklore,
you could easily switch it out for Ivan or anything
else and it would lose it. But if you had,
if you felt the weight of that, if you had
a cultural attachment to a particular name, it would be

a different story.

Speaker 2 (41:22):
It's this character, I.

Speaker 1 (41:24):
Know him, m hmm. Otherwise it's just a name now.

Speaker 2 (41:27):
More interesting to Bartlett is the finding that usually the
titles of stories are dropped fairly quickly from reproductions, so
like the title just disappears, it is left off.

Speaker 1 (41:39):

Speaker 2 (41:39):
These titles can be the conventional names of folk tales
or the headlines of newspaper articles. It doesn't really seem
to matter. People very often just simply drop them. And
this might seem kind of strange, since titles, including headlines
often provide the important element of setting for the story,
the context you need in order to understand what the

story is about or what the point.

Speaker 1 (42:01):
Of it is. You know, part of me wants to
resist this idea and be like, well, how could you
forget the title? Because the titles like the thing that
you would like? How do you request it? How do
you sort of catalog it? But then I think too
various examples that came up in some sources I was
looking at, you know, looking at like urban legends, you know,

where you're not really perhaps attaching any kind of like
cultural value to it or really it's not the idea
that this story is like important, you know, culturally or historically,
but there's some other reason it's being transmitted and in
doing so, Yeah, these are stories that don't necessarily have
a name or any kind of concrete name, like, for example,

like the old story about the you know, oh and
then when he pulled up the hook was was hanging
from the door of the car. You know. Some of
those kind of stories like those don't necessarily have names
they I mean, I'm sure you can find a handful
of names for them, but there's going to probably be
a fair amount of drift. I guess the exception to that
would be a case where an urban legend has is

so centered around a particular character or monster or something
like if it were s that I don't slender man
like that. The name is evocative. It brings to mind
a certain thing, and no matter what else is changing,
you're probably going to hold onto that, and it's not
going to be like skinny dude or something.

Speaker 2 (43:20):
You know. Based on his comments about the role of
titles and how they're easily forgotten even though they are
very important contextual information that colors are understanding of a
story or an article, Bartlet writes quote. With this general
consideration in mind, it would be a matter of some
interest to study experimentally the psychological effects of newspaper headlines.

It looks as if the merely descriptive headline is the
most ineffective, and as if the biased headline may produce
a profound effect, though or perhaps even because it itself
is speedily forgotten. So, if I understand him right here,
I think the insight he's claiming is that you know,
the title or headline is able to make an impression,
a strong impression that colors your understanding of the story

or the article, whatever it is you're reading. But because
the title or the headline is by nature forgettable, you
may sort of forget the kind of work that it
did on you that it did on coloring your understanding
of a story. So you could write a perfectly accurate
newspaper story, slap a misleading headline on it, and the
headline would strongly influence what people remember as the gist

of the story, even if they don't actually remember the
headline itself, so they wouldn't remember that the headline did
that to them.

Speaker 1 (44:35):
Yeah, of course, this is a great example too, and
that traditionally the headline itself is a choice made by
the editor as opposed to the writer of the article.
And especially nowadays, you'll sometimes see a particular article or
story that comes out and you'll observe its title changing online.
Either it may change on the same page that it

has been initially published, or a change with republication on
other websites. So, yeah, great example.

Speaker 2 (45:05):
I can't tell you how often I've seen people arguing
about an article on the Internet, and what it turns
out they're really arguing about is the title of the article,
which is not something the writer even picked.

Speaker 1 (45:17):
Right right, Yeah, very often the cliche is that the
editor comes along and slaps the title onto the article.
That is just going to be the most it's going
to lead to the most engagement. It's got to hook
people and potentially make them read at least part of
the article.

Speaker 2 (45:41):
Okay, but anyway, we dwelt on that one a bit,
the idea of proper names and titles. There is a
tendency over time in this type of serial reproduction experiment
for those things to go by the wayside to change
or disappear. Second thing Bartlett says is a general trend
in the sort of experiment, the bias towards the concrete.
He says, concrete physical details in drama are more likely

to be preserved in their original form than abstract content.
And Bartlett writes that with one notable exception quote, every
general opinion, every argument, every piece of reasoning, and every
deduction is speedily transformed and then omitted. Now that makes sense,
and I think we can see some elements of that

in the examples he gives in his chapter. But he
says there's one exception to the bias for concrete detail
and against the preservation or expansion of abstract or mental detail.
And Bartlett says the exception here is the tendency of
folk tales to have a moral. Now, a quick caveat

on terminology. I think it can be confusing in this
context sometimes to talk about a moral of the story, because,
of course, the moral of a story is not always
moral in character, meaning it's not always about doing what's
good or right. Sometimes it's just teaching you something about
the way the world allegedly works, or showing a way
to be clever. And sometimes these lessons are not particularly

moral at all. So when we say moral, you can
think of it as the lesson of the story, the
part at the end where you might say the point
of this story is to show you that. So while
a lot of non concrete detail and narratives tends to
change and disappear over time, this was not so much
the case with the moral of the story. In fact,
I thought this was very interesting. Bartlett says that when

you do serial reproduction experiments with a folk tale that
does not specify a moral in its original form, people
will often add one during attempts to retell the story.
People actually subconsciously add on a moral of the story,
thinking it was already part of what they just read.

Speaker 1 (47:46):
Hmmm, that's fascinating.

Speaker 2 (47:48):
Next Trendy says is loss of individual characteristics. So there
is across the board, a loss of what Bartlett calls
the individualizing features of stories. Quote, the descriptive passages lose
most of the peculiarities of style and matter that they
may possess, and the arguments tend to be reduced to

a bald expression of conventional opinion. So, in general, it
seems to me that even if a passage manages to
maintain the gist of a story, a story told, or
an argument expressed through the chain of transmission, these stories
tend to lose their soul. They become stripped of nuances

and stylistic details, the details that really make them what
they are. And so Bartlett says that carefully articulated, sophisticated
expressions of opinion or argument tend to get translated into
loosely related conventional views expressed in cliches. And I think
we've probably all had that experience of like trying to

express something very carefully in a very clear and particular way,
only to have somebody sort of translated back to us
as a very blunt or conventional statement that does not
capture what we think we were trying to say.

Speaker 1 (49:06):
Yeah, yeah, Or if someone's summarizing moment in a work
in a film or a book. You know, sometimes if
you have to, you find yourself explaining it and then
you're like, well, you just need to see it. I
get a terrible job.

Speaker 2 (49:18):
But this leads to what I thought was actually a
somewhat poignant comment that seems as much about the nature
of stories as it does about the process of transmission
between readers and rewriters. In this type of experiment, Bartlett says, quote,
nobody seeing a single reproduction could predict the remarkable effect
which the cumulative loss of small, outstanding detail may have.

Yet the effect is continuous from version to version, following
constant drifts of change from beginning to end. And I
don't know. That kind of broke my heart a little
bit thinking about how it elucidates the imperceptible but very
real ways that a single like word, choice, or detail
actually strongly affects how everything from a story to a

newspaper article is perceived. It's kind of one of the
tragic things about writing is that, like, you make a
little change here and a little change there, and each
of them you could argue is insignificant in itself, but
it actually does change the effect of the piece overall.

Speaker 1 (50:22):
True, true, yeah, yeah, And then of course over time
that it's like outside of that, even if you have
this story and nobody's changed it, it's sealed so it
can continue to live on, like the languages and experiences
around that story are going to change, and ultimately you
have this thing that then nobody can relate to without

a dictionary or a whole bunch of notes. Though, I
guess if it's a really good one, if it's a
really good story, like it's sticking around because something in
there is still speaking, something in there is still alive
and hasn't died away with changes in language and traditions
and and so forth.

Speaker 2 (51:01):
Now, one thing Bartlett points out here on this detail
about the stripping of individualizing characteristics. He says this is
likely a limitation of his experiments, because again, this is
not a perfect reproduction of the way story is spread
by word of mouth in the real world. This is
a sort of approximation of it with some differences. And
one different thing he says is that in the experimental setting,

where you're reading a text somebody else wrote and then
trying to reproduce it in writing from memory, there's very
little incentive to elaborate in other words, to breathe new
individual characteristics into the text when you retell it. So Bartlett,
I think implies that in the real world you would
probably still have this shearing off of individual characteristics from

the original story, but people along the chain would also
be more likely to end up adding new individual characteristics
back in. So some of the original soul of the
piece of writing or the story might be lost. But
also so each teller breathes new soul in based on
audience demand and what they think would be interesting, entertaining

relevant to the listener, and so forth.

Speaker 1 (52:10):
Yeah, yeah, and again Yeah. Speaks to the importance of
dedicated and successful storytellers throughout human history. It's not just
that you need people that can keep this chain going
and can keep spicing it up as other spies are lost.

Speaker 2 (52:25):
Okay. The fourth trend he notices abbreviations. In short, all
genres of serial reproduction tend to become more and more
abbreviated over time. Some of the serial reproductions he includes
start off taking up more than half the page, and
by the tent threproduction they are just three lines. It
gets massively paired down. In my judgment, just looking at

the examples. This seems to be especially the case with
more abstract writing as opposed to concrete narratives, Like it
seems like the folk tales get pared down less than say,
the writing about evolutionary theory or or thoughts about travel.

Speaker 1 (53:02):
Yeah, yeah, I get it down to a tight ten.

Speaker 2 (53:05):
Now here's something I found really interesting in this little section.
Many people will probably have noticed how stories can seem
to become more exaggerated when they spread by word of mouth.
This is the classic, you know, oh what's in there?
Like a there's like a musical where this happens or something.

Speaker 1 (53:21):
You know.

Speaker 2 (53:22):
It starts off as one story, and then as it
goes through the rumors, you know, goes each each step
down the rumor chain, the claim gets more and more grandiose.

Speaker 1 (53:31):
Oh yeah, what wasn't there an old satura, not even
an old Saturday Night Live, But there was a Saturday
Night Live sketch about this with tall tales about some
coworker or somebody that's someone knew, and they just keep
getting more and more outlandish, this kind of escalation.

Speaker 2 (53:44):
So this is usually chalked up to a desire to
make the story more impressive and exciting, to the audience
by each person telling it. That obviously is a very
real factor. But contrary to this mechanism, Bartlett notices another
way that exactly duration can creep in over successive retellings.
He says, quote, when a generality is expressed with saving clauses,

the saving clauses tend to disappear, even if the generality
is retained. And that really clicked for me. I was like, oh,
I bet that is true. Yeah, So your story might
start by saying the psychic mutant crabs were so powerful
that nothing could stop them except maybe dynamite or Clint
Eastwood in a jet fighter. Okay, next time, the psychic

mutant crabs were so powerful that nothing could stop them.
So it keeps the generality and it forgets to add
in the exceptions offered. And then the next time it's
the mutant crabs literally could not be stopped no matter what.
It's just rephrasing the generality, but in a way that
makes it sound more definitive.

Speaker 1 (54:50):
H Well, I mean that makes it sound like everything
creeps toward cosmic horror, horror, and or something to that effect.

Speaker 2 (54:59):
So sometimes the general reality itself might be lost, but
it might be preserved, while the nuance to it or
the exceptions to it that they just fall away. Okay,
two more things the trends in changes from these experiments.
One is what Bartlett called the rationalization process. Something that
was common when people repeated folk tales, especially from cultures

that they weren't as familiar with, was the introduction of
explanatory rationalizations for events described that didn't make sense to them.
And again that didn't make sense to them as a reader,
might have made perfect sense to a person who would
have been more familiar with this folk tale and familiar
with the cultural context.

Speaker 1 (55:40):
That makes sense. Makes me think back to our example earlier,
the changing of my relatives' won't know what has happened
to me, which is a statement it feels like it
might connect to a different culture's idea of the importance
of our ancestors or something, and he gets transformed into ah,
my mom is old and I have to look after exactly.

Speaker 2 (55:59):
I think that is one of the change toward what
the reader would view as a rationalization. So, just as
one more example in these experiments, one of these experiments
has a folk story that is reportedly from the Congo
about a boy who wants to hide from his father,
so he transforms himself into a kernel of a peanut,

which is subsequently eaten by a fowl, which is eaten
by a bush cat, which is eaten by a dog,
which is eaten by a python. And then at the
end of the story, the father finds the python caught
in his fish trap. He opens it up, finds the dog,
opens the dog. He goes down the line of animals
until he finds the boy disguised as a peanut. Opens
up the nut, and there's the boy. Now. In the

original text used for this experiment, there is no explicitly
given reason why the boy wanted to hide. It just
says a son said to his father, I will hide
and you will not be able to find me. And
so Bartlett reproduces all of the stages of transmission in
one of these experiments with this folk, and by the
thirteenth transmission, the story begins by saying that the boy

is trying to hide because he is afraid of his father,
a rationalization that was not there to begin with, and
in fact violates what I took to be the implied
playfulness of the original first line that the boy wants
to hide from his father because oh, and the story
is called a boy who tried to outwit his father.

Speaker 1 (57:23):
We simply didn't think that the boy's hiding was earned
in the text. We needed a stronger rationalization for him hiding.

Speaker 2 (57:32):
So by the seventeenth transmission there was a further rationalization.
A boy who had been up to some mischief wanted
to hide from his father, whose anger he feared. So
he wants to hide because he's afraid of his father,
because he had committed some mischief. And it's interesting also
that I think these rationalizing details are also the sorts

of non concrete mental phenomena that would be liable to
be stripped out by subsequent retellings. So these things could
probably kind of wash in and then wash out again.

Speaker 1 (58:04):
Yeah, I mean, you can just imagine the various judgment
calls that are being made here subconsciously, you know, like,
I don't like the idea that the father is the
antagonist here. Let's make the what if the boy were
a little rowdy and he's bringing mischief into the scenario.
Let's go in that direction.

Speaker 2 (58:23):
Interesting paradox. While many subjects have an urge to add
what they obviously believe to be rationalizing details to a story.
When a character's actions don't make sense to them, or
when the connection between two described events is unclear to them.
People tend to do exactly the opposite with quote descriptive
and argumentative passages, which, over subsequent retellings, tend to, in

Bartlett's words, degenerate into a few apparently disconnected sentences. And
that is definitely true of like the attempts to reproduce
like the argument about biology or something. Yeah so in
the end, Bartlett says, you know, at least in his
experiments with these types of transmission, it should be emphasized

that while accurate transmission is not impossible, it is clearly
not the norm, especially for many kinds of information and
for most of the verbal information tested. The degree of
change across several generations of honest attempts at faithful transmission
is radical, even shocking. Bartlett writes, quote epithets are changed
into their opposites, Incidents and events are transposed, names and

numbers rarely survive intact for more than a few reproductions, opinions,
and conclusions are reversed. Nearly every possible variation seems as
if it can take place even in a relatively short series.
At the same time, the subjects may be very well
satisfied with their efforts, believing themselves to have passed on
all important features with little or no change, and merely

perhaps to have omitted unessential matters, you know. He also
says that people are probably being more careful to reproduce
as accurately as possible in this university experiment setting than
they would be if they were just you know, living
their lives, repeating something they read in the newspaper or
heard from a friend, where there's less expectation of scrutiny

of their efforts for accuracy, and more incentive to alter
a story to make it more entertaining, more impressive, more
illustrative of a point one wants to get across, or
whatever else.

Speaker 1 (01:00:27):
Yeah, thinking of your audience, for example, you know, retelling
the story to a loved one, you know, what kind
of changes might you be making in order to make
sure they enjoy it the most. This is something we'll
get into more in the next episode as well.

Speaker 2 (01:00:44):
So finally, Bartlett says, quote, it looks as if what
is said to be reproduced is far more generally than
is commonly admitted. Really a construction serving to justify whatever
impression may have been left by the original. It is
this impression rarely find with much exactitude, which most readily persists.

So I think that's a very interesting starting point. But
there's obviously a lot more to say about this subject
about serial reproduction of different forms, transmission chains, and the
telephone games. So we will be continuing to look at
this at at least one more part in this series.
Maybe we'll go on beyond that. But yeah, I found

this fascinating.

Speaker 1 (01:01:26):
Yeah, yeah, again it gets It bleeds into so many
aspects of our culture, and it's going to be interesting
to also take into account technological changes when we continue
to discuss this in the next episode. All Right, we'll
close it out here, but just a reminder to everyone
that stuff. Topop Your Mind is primarily a science podcast
with core episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays we

do listener mail. On Wednesdays we do a short form
Monster Factor Artifact episode, and then on Fridays we set
aside most serious concerns to just talk about a weird
film on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 2 (01:01:58):
Huge things. As always, to our audio producer JJ Posway.
If you would like to get in touch with us
with feedback on this episode or any other, to suggest
a topic for the future, or just to say hello,
you can email us at contact at stuff to Blow
your Mind dot com.

Speaker 3 (01:02:19):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
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