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May 18, 2024 39 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 2 of 2, originally published 05/04/2023)

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

Speaker 2 (00:08):
Lamb and I am Joe McCormick, and it's Saturday. We
are heading into the vault for an older episode of
the show. This is part two of the series that
we did in May of twenty twenty three. This episode
published on May fourth, twenty twenty three, Part two of
the series on the game of telephone and related concepts
about the oral transmission of information.

Speaker 1 (00:28):
All right, let's dive right in.

Speaker 3 (00:32):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 1 (00:43):
Hey you welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind. My
name is Robert.

Speaker 2 (00:46):
Lamb and I am Joe McCormick. And today we are
returning with part two in our series on the Telephone Game,
a children's game in which a secret message is passed
along from one place to the next in a chain,
until finally the original message and the message that emerges
at the end are both announced, so everybody can see

how the information was either preserved faithfully or horribly mangled
by the passing from mouth to ear so many times now,
if you have not heard part one of the series,
I think this is a case where you really should
go back and check that one out.

Speaker 1 (01:23):

Speaker 2 (01:23):
We lay a lout of the groundwork for what we're
talking about today in the first episode, but as a
brief refresher, we talked about some of our memories of
these games from childhood, and we also discussed a very
famous and influential series of experiments from roughly a century ago,
discussed in a book by the British experimental psychologist Frederick C.

Bartlett called Remembering, a Study in Experimental and Social Psychology.
That book came out in nineteen thirty two. Now, the
experiments described by Bartlett in this book concerned what is
called serial reproduction, which is very similar to the telephone game,
but involves a written component. So basically, a person would

be given a text to read, and this could be anything.
It could be a transcription of a folk tale, it
could be a newspaper article, a passage from a book, whatever,
and then that person is allowed to read it several times,
and then it's taken away, and then later they are
asked to reproduce the text as accurately as they could
from memory. Then that reproduction would be the text given

to the next person in the chain, and they would
do the best they could to reproduce that from memory,
and so on down the chain for an arbitrary number
of reproductions. Now, what Bartlett found in these experiments was
that his text based version of the telephone game in
most cases produced radical, profound alterations to the original story

or message. And to read from his conclusion of that
chapter 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. So I wanted to
begin today by following up on Bartlett's work, which we
talked about in the last episode, because it cast a
very long shadow in the study of memory and cultural
transmission of information. But obviously this book is from a
very long time ago, so I wanted to see whether
there were any more recent scientific reviews commenting on whether

his work on serial reproduction has stood the test of
time and or been successfully replicated. So I found a
few papers. One was actually focused on Bartlett's repeated reproduction experiments.
That's where the same person tries to recall a story
or piece of information at different time intervals after being
exposed to it, as opposed to the serial reproduction experiments

where it's given from one person to the next. But
this study did briefly address the other Bartlett experiments in
the background section. This paper was ken Bartlett's repeated reproduction
experiments be replicated by Bergmann and Rodeger in Memory and
Cognition in nineteen ninety nine, and the authors say that
quote serial reproduction can often lead to dramatic distortions in

recall over repeated reconstructions of the event. Although rarely used now,
this experimental technique was used in later studies with results
generally confirming those of Bartlett. Psychologists interested in transmission of
rumors use this technique among others. And then I found
another study from more recent years. This was from twenty

fourteen in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and
Cognition by Rodigertte a'll called Bartlett Revisited direct comparison of
repeated reproduction and serial reproduction techniques, and in their review
the authors say in some virtually every experiment we can
find using Bartlet's serial reproduction technique confirms his observation that

social transmission of information is error prone and that the
more links there are in the chain, the greater the
probability of error. So, putting all this together, it looks
to me like subsequent research may have found some differences
at the margins, but for the most part, Bartlett's findings
about the telephone game process have been confirmed. When you

do this particular type of experiment where one person gets
to read a story and then they're supposed to repeat
it as accurately as they can from memory, and you
go on and on, all the different kinds of changes
that we talked about in the last episode are introduced.
Now there might be some important caveats based on what
the genre of the information is, and we can talk

about that later in this episode, But for the most part,
one of my big takeaways from this is we should
all be very cautious about believing rumors, even if you
trust that the person directly sharing the information with you
is not a liar, because this is something people always
say when you know, when you hear a rumor, people

say like, oh, but Johnny, who told me this isn't
a liar? Why would he tell me this if it
wasn't true.

Speaker 1 (06:08):
M Yeah, that's a good point, though. I think the
only example of rumors that you should take to the bank,
the only example is going to be the of course,
the eleven studio album by Fleetwood Mac, which absolutely holds up,
no doubt about it.

Speaker 2 (06:22):
That's just secondhand news.

Speaker 1 (06:25):
There's also a track cook you also have the chain
on there, so take that into account.

Speaker 2 (06:29):
I do love Fleetwood Mac, but I got to ding
them for a false meteorological fact that they perpetuate in
one of their songs with the statement the thunder only
happens when it rains. That is not true.

Speaker 1 (06:41):
Yeah, absolutely incorrect. But to your point, Yeah, that's a
good point on rumors. Sort of like the dark side
of this this phenomenon. I really like the idea of
the storytelling element and the chain of storytellers within a
given oral storytelling tradition or or what have you. Like.
It made me rethink and reanalyze the role of the

storyteller in a given culture. You know that with each
transmission of this story you may lose so many great things,
but you also may gain things. It's going to introduce
new ways to make this content more agreeable with an audience.
More beneficial to the audience, more entertaining, though at the
same time also opening it up to further manipulation so

that the message of the story could also be misused.

Speaker 2 (07:30):
Absolutely, I mean this is noted I think by Bartlett himself,
but also in many papers I was reading about this research.
So the thing is that, yes, this should make us
very skeptical of the objective accuracy of much of memory
and of chains of information sharing between people, especially where
the whole process cannot be reviewed with a fixed record,

Because the crucial element of this here is that you
only have to work with what the previous person told you.
It's a totally different thing if like it's all done,
maybe it's all done in writing or somehow it's all recorded,
and you can go back and review what the story
was at each point in its history. But for this
type of information sharing, yes it should make a skeptical

about objective accuracy in reproduction of the original. But this
doesn't mean that the way people process information and serial
transmission is bad. It just means that you shouldn't rely
on it to get objective accurate accounts. It may not
be good for that purpose, but it's good for other things.
It's great for creating culture, for enlivening art and narrative

across time, and making it always newly relevant, for maintaining
friendship and social bonds, for teaching applicable lessons in everyday life.
In fact, several papers I was reading pointed out that
in fact, this combination of conservation and distortion of information
at the same time through transmission from person to person

could be viewed as metaphorically similar to the combination of
conservation and distortion in biological evolution. Life can only exist
on Earth where there is the appropriate balance of conservation
and distortion of genetic information. So genetic traits are heritable
and they're passed on from one generation of organisms to another.

But species survive in a changing environment because they're able
to adapt and evolve, and they're able to adapt and
evolve when mutations distortions of that genetic information prove beneficial
to them. Though it's interesting to note, I think that
the error rate is probably much higher in the transmission
of most genres of verbal information than it is for

genetic information and organisms. Like in life, accurate transmission of
genes is the norm and mutations are the exception. When
we're telling stories to each other or repeating something we
read in the newspaper to a friend. In that kind
of verbal memory based transmission, mutations are much more than
norm But at the same time, I think about how

there I guess there is a higher survival tolerance there,
Like a single harmful mutation can prove fatal to a bacterium.
But how does that work in the analogy for transmitting information.
Is it possible that one memory error could kill a
piece of information and prevent it from spreading further?

Speaker 1 (10:22):
I guess so, you know, like the example of the
story of the ghost Battle the Ghost Warriors in the
last episode. You know, like sometimes if certain details, certain descriptions,
certain narrative choices are removed, like you can take the
heart out of a particular story, a particular myth, and

could impact the degree to which people want to pass
it on or need to pass it on.

Speaker 2 (10:50):
That's a good point. Yes, This thing that Bartlett noticed
where certain details this is he called the leveling process,
where individualizing characteristics and stylistic details from a story are
stripped out as they are reproduced by people who don't
remember them because they deem them inessential, not realizing that
the soul of the story lies in those details. The

fact that those details are now missing could make the
story so uninteresting to the person who hears it that
they would never share it again. That's a good point,
But wait a minute. I wanted to come back to
something I started saying a minute ago, this thing about
believing rumors, where people are often inclined to believe a
rumor because they don't want to believe the individual person

who shared the rumor with them is a liar. And
I think that that is such a misguided mentality because,
first of all, and less related to the experimental findings
we're talking about here, the person who shared the rumor
with you may not be a liar, but you know
less about the person who shared the rumor with them,
and who that person heard it from, etc. You can't

usually inspect the entire chain of transmission, only the person
you're directly getting it from. More relevant to today's topic,
it's absolutely clear from these experiments that massive distortions of
original source material can creep into human transmission chains, even
when the person isn't a liar. When they're not trying

to distort it, they're trying as best they can to
accurately reproduce it. And that's in cases where the person
is not personally invested in the subject matter, where they
have no incentive to exaggerate, and they're just trying to
reproduce the material as best they can. How much worse
will things be in the real world? Will distortions be
when like somebody is personally invested in the material, maybe

in it presenting a certain way, when they do have
incentives to exaggerate or otherwise distort the material, whether that's
to maybe make it more entertaining, more impressive, more illustrative
of a point they want to make, or whatever, and
when they're not necessarily conscious of being scrutinized for accuracy.

Speaker 1 (12:56):
Yeah, so there are all these different types of unconscious
chain an event, of course, intentional changes that can take place,
and the result is that some details in the story
or the rumor or what have you, some will change,
some will remain, and there will also be a sharpening
of things, you know, like an exaggeration. But what does
it all mean? I was looking at a handful of

papers discussing transmission chain experiments and the transmission of urban
legends and other stories, which I thought seems like a
really good area to look at because a lot of
times urban legends, especially, I mean, we're not talking about literature,
we're not talking about myths, where they often kind of
come out of nowhere, and the way in which we

pass them on sometimes feels more akin to like older
oral storytelling traditions.

Speaker 2 (13:45):
Well, right, because the case with urban myths is you
at least usually assume that they were created by many minds.
You know, they're the product of this transmission chain, rather
than say, being originally written down in a fixed form
one person and then other people have tried to replicate
it across time, though in fact there are variation, Like

some urban legends do come from books. That's a funny
thing that pops up occasionally, like it was originally a
story somebody wrote that was published in a sci fi
magazine somewhere, and then it got turned into an urban
legend and morphed along along the chain.

Speaker 1 (14:20):
Yeah. And of course, speaking of the chain, we have
to acknowledge the email chain of technology changes things. Technology
ends up bringing us a scenario we're end up with
things like pasta, creepy pasta and so forth, where it's
something that is as the name alludes, to generally just
copied and pasted, though sometimes there are augmentations made, and
then of course everyone has received it, or at least

in times past. I don't know if this is still
a thing so much, but when a family member forwards
you an email and it has some sort of perhaps
an unbelievable quality to it, some sort of tall tail
or urban legend at the heart of it. But nothing
has changed except for the string of forwards that are
at the top of it, where you can see all

these people that have passed it on like a chain letter.

Speaker 2 (15:06):
But if I don't forward this, I'm going to look
in the mirror and see a ghost and it will
kill me.

Speaker 1 (15:11):
That's right, in seven days. So one of the papers
I was looking at was from Storytelling to Facebook by
Alberto Rcibi, published in Human Nature in twenty twenty two.
This particular paper utilized a registered online pair of studies,

one using a traditional transmission chain set up, and the
other asking subjects whether they would be likely to share
a story on social media or with friends in a
anonymous or attributed status.

Speaker 2 (15:51):
So I thought this was really interesting. So, if I'm
understanding right, the author wanted to compare different types of
information sharing in the modern era one is more like
the experiments we've been talking about, where somebody has to
pass along the story effortfully by like using their memory
to retell the story as they understand it, like in
the Bartlet experiments, versus the technology assisted passing along of

a story passively in its original unaltered form. You know,
you just click the button to share, so you're not
actually changing it in that case, you are just deciding
whether or not you want this same original piece of
media to go to all of the people following you.

Speaker 1 (16:31):
Yeah. Yeah, So just some of the very quick sort
of findings from this. First of all, negative content was
both better transmitted in transmission chain experiments and shared more
than its neutral counterpart.

Speaker 2 (16:45):
That should not be surprising based on all the studies
of what does well online negative content works.

Speaker 1 (16:51):
Yeah. Next, threat related information was successful in transmission chain experiments,
but not when sharing straight up. So that's that's interesting
as well, and again kind of matches up with what
we we tend to understand about, you know, why we
pass something on, why we would we would tell someone
a particular story. And then finally, information eliciting disgust was

not advantaged in either which which is interesting.

Speaker 2 (17:19):
That's surprising to me. But okay, I.

Speaker 1 (17:21):
Guess you know some people. I guess maybe it depends
on the population. Again, this is this is a small study,
but it does seem like there would be individuals who
are like, hey, I got a disgusting story I need
to tell you listen to me. But but maybe other's
not so much, or maybe it's like the disgusting thing
that we might might be the thing we sort of

focus on, Like, maybe it's ultimately something about it being
negative or something about it being threat related that is
more important to the transmission than merely the discuss Now,
the author points out that content biases are strongest when
memorization and reproduction aren't involved in the transmission of information,
as in the telephone game and the traditional oral transmission

of narratives. Now, another paper I was looking at pointed
out some other great ideas related to this. It's titled
serial Killers, Spiders and Cybersex, Social and Survival Information by
us in the Transmission of Urban Legends by stubbards Field
at All, published in the British Journal of Psychology in
twenty fourteen. Okay, oh y, that's great time. The authors

point out that when we take in information and retell it,
various cognitive selection pressures kick in to make sure it's
maximally transmittable. This can alter structure, it can alter content,
and transmissibility depends on three factors salience, accuracy of recall,
and motivation to pass it on.

Speaker 2 (18:47):
Okay, so can you explain that.

Speaker 1 (18:48):
The way I was thinking about is in terms of like,
all right, you've heard a good joke and you want
to retell that joke. Why do you want to retell
that joke? Is it good? Is it notable? Is it
attention grabbing in any way? Can you actually remember the
beats well enough to retell it? And then why are
you retelling it? Is? Is it timely? Is it entertaining?
Is it particularly cutting? Are you just trying to create

a distraction? You know, dot sort of lift the mood.
All of this matters without any of us having to
actively check these boxes off in our head. We don't
have to actually think like, all right, can I read?
Because Lord knows, plenty of people launch into a joke
without trying to, without making sure that they can actually
retell all the necessary beats first. But also you're not

necessarily you know, conscious of all of this. As you're
about to retell.

Speaker 2 (19:36):
Something, the horse goes into the doctor's office has a
long face. The horse says, why is my face like this?
I don't remember the rest.

Speaker 1 (19:45):
Yeah, yeah, but still, it's like you're taking a joke
or some other bit of information. If it ends with you,
there's a reason, and if you pass it on, there's
a reason as well. So the first and third factors here,
salience and motivation, depend on social information bias and survival
information bias. In other words, coming back to the joke

or say an urban legend, does the thing you were
passing on contain to any degree social information or survival information?

Speaker 2 (20:15):
Hmm okay, Yeah.

Speaker 1 (20:18):
It's really interesting to think about this because indeed, some
of the memorable ideas out there, be they jokes, urban legends,
or what have you, at least seem to have some
sort of social revelation or commentary baked into them, and
or some sort of information that seems to contain a
lesson on how to survive in the world. I mean,

you're not necessarily processing this. You're not thinking like, oh,
this is a good urban legend. I can use this,
This might save my life tomorrow. You might not be
thinking that, but that could be like the reason that
you're inclined to remember it.

Speaker 2 (20:50):
I think a lot of the jokes that people find
the funniest are ones that make a playfully negative observation
about general human nature. Yes, classic example, the two hunters
in the woods they see a bear charging at them.
One kneels down to tie his shoes. His friend says,
why are you tying your shoes. You can't outrun a bear.
The guy tying his shoes says, I don't have to

outrun a bear, I just have to outrun you.

Speaker 1 (21:14):
Yeah. Yeah, So you can look at examples like this.
There are also various parables and co EN's that really
zing because they seem to reveal something about human nature. Likewise,
you can also point to a lot of negative examples,
things that contain disinformation or just hurtful ideas or stereotypes,
but true or not, they seem to have some sort

of social information. Now, on the survival information front, the
first place my mind went to was the old urban
legend of hey, don't flash your lights your car lights
at another car that doesn't have its lights on, because
you know what's going on. This is a murder gang initiation.
There are gang members in that car. They're intentionally riding
around without their headlights on, and if you flash your

lights at them, you may think you're generally reminding them
that they need to turn their lights on. They but
know it'll be on and they will come and kill you.

Speaker 2 (22:04):
So this allegedly has survival information. You need to know this.
If you don't know this, you could die.

Speaker 1 (22:10):
Right. It seems to be important on some level and
then gets transmitted and passed on. It of course completely false.
This was as an urban legend that began in the
nineteen eighties, has no truth to it, though at times
got passed on by reputable and semi reputable sources. But again,
it seems to have survival information inside of it, and

therefore there's a stickiness to it.

Speaker 2 (22:33):
That makes sense.

Speaker 1 (22:34):
Okay, Now back to the paper itself. They conducted a
very small study but found quote legends which contained social information,
social type legends which contained survival information survival type, and
legends which contained both forms of information combined type were
all recalled with significantly greater accuracy than control material, while

social and combined type legends were recalled with significantly greater
accuracy than survival type legend.

Speaker 2 (23:00):
Well counterintuitive? Is it maybe that social and combined beats
out survival. I am not really surprised by that, because
I don't know what is the what is the juiciest
type of information that if you hear a little snippet
of you've got to lean in and find out more.
It's gossip about people, it's you know, it's not people
talking about life threatening situations. You might lean in and

want to hear more about life threatening situations, But even
more so, it's if you hear like, oh man, did
you hear what Johnny said to say? And then like
you have to hear the rest of that.

Speaker 1 (23:32):
Yeah, like the whole thing about gang members driving around
in cars without their lights on. Yeah, there's the survival
last aspect of it, certainly, But there is also at least,
and I'm not I didn't look at any specific examples
of the text. I'm just kind of remembering it. There's
it's at least implied that there's some sort of social
information about like reckless youth culture or punk gangs, or

there's some sort of racial connotation to it. That's all
just kind of baked into the idea. Even if they
are not specific examples added in its transmission.

Speaker 2 (24:03):
Yes, like pings on a lot of different unhealthy fixations
people might have.

Speaker 1 (24:10):
So anyway, I thought that was interesting. It also I
would be interested to hear from listeners out there if
they have other examples of the sort of like urban
legend transmission. I think there's a lot to reveal in
these examples.

Speaker 2 (24:32):
Well, speaking of urban legends, I also wanted to talk
briefly about a study I was looking at that concerned
urban legends and folk tales. And so this was by
ost at All published in the journal Memory very recently
in twenty twenty two, and the title was the Serial
Reproduction of an Urban Myth revisiting Bartlett's schema theory. So

the title makes reference to Bartlett's schema theory. This is
an idea proposed by Bartlett that memory is more accurate
when it conforms to what he called our schema, meaning
a sort of an existing body of knowledge and expectations

that we use to help store memory efficiently and make
sense of the world. And so according to this theory,
not all information is distorted at the same rate the
author's right quote. According to the logic of Bartlett's schema
theory remembering should, in relation to certain kinds of material,
be relatively reliable, and so the authors here investigate the

reliability of Bartlett style serial reproduction chains by modulating two
different variables. First of all, whether the original information fits
with the subject's familiar cultural schema or not, and whether
the audience of their retelling was understood to be quote
lean or strict. And I thought both of these variables

were interesting because they both came up in Bartlett's discussion
of his own work. One of the things he was
testing with the famous example of that story, the War
of the Ghosts, which again this is when we discussed
in episode one. This is a translated adaptation of a
Native American folk tale that in its original form is
we found very haunting and beautiful and interesting, but it

doesn't conform to common expectations of storytelling that might be
expected by a Western audience. And thus Bartlett featured it
because he thought that these differences in storytelling conventions and
the subjects lack of familiarity with the cultural context of
the story would make it more difficult for them to

remember and reproduce it accurately, and that did seem to
be the case. But here the authors of this study
wanted to actually compare that directly with a much more
culturally familiar story, and in this case they chose the
vanishing hitchhiker. Rob Do you know the vanishing hitchhiker tail?

Speaker 1 (27:09):
Oh, I don't know. Is this the one? Or the hook? No?

Speaker 2 (27:11):
No, no, no, no not the hook? A hook is a
good one too, the vanishing hitchhiker. There are a lot
of different variations, but usual contours are the same. So
maybe there is a man driving along a lonely highway
at night and he sees a hitchhiker, a woman who
appears to be in distress. She's asking for a ride.
Walking on the side of the highway. She asks him
for a ride, He picks her up. They have a

brief conversation as he drives her to the address she
asks for, and then when he arrives, he turns to
find she has vanished entirely from the car. And then
he later often compares his story with somebody else He
tells this, you know, he's like. He gets home and says, oh,
you wouldn't believe it. I picked up this woman to
give her a ride home, and then she disappeared completely,

and then the person he's talking to says, I've driven
her home as well. She also disappears from my car.

Speaker 1 (28:01):
Oh nice, nice, nice. So this is like an automobile
age sort of take on the classic ghost story where
you find out after the fact that this mysterious person
who vanished is a frequently occurring ghost exactly. Now.

Speaker 2 (28:14):
It might have earlier analogs, but I think most people
would interpret this as like a twentieth century folk tale.

Speaker 1 (28:20):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, clearly involves the car, the hitch hiker.
It's new for a new age.

Speaker 2 (28:26):
So the authors of the study, first they did a
pilot study to compare these two stories, the War of
the Ghosts and the Vanishing hitch Hiker within to determine
how schema friendly these two stories were in the cultural
setting of the experiment, which was twenty first century college undergrads.
I believe in the UK, So again always testing with
the college students, but okay, you know, you at least

want to find out among the general population that is
being tested in this study, how familiar would these two
different types of stories be. And familiarity here doesn't just
mean like have you heard this story before? They measured
it along a bunch of different variables, and those variables
were familiarity of the setting, what the readers perceived to
be the logical structure, the clarity of the structure, how

understandable the events in the story were, and how conventional
the language was. So I think this is generally a
good way of approaching it, finding a bunch of different
ways of scoring, like when a person in the study
encounters a particular story, how out of their element do
they feel? And perhaps not surprisingly, participants here rated the
Vanishing Hitchhiker as much more familiar along these dimensions than

the War of the Ghosts. No surprise there, and so
they tried to do the serial reproduction experiments like Bartlett
did with these two different stories, and in line with
their hypothesis, they found that while participants in the experimental
portion of the study came up with enormous distortions while
attempting to transmit the War of the Ghosts, they produced

comparatively very accurate copies from memory of the Vanishing Hitchhiker.
And I thought that was very interesting. It would seem
to validate some part of the scheme of theory, the
idea that stories that fit more in the box of
our cultural expectations, are remembered and preserved more accurately and

more easily than stories that somehow don't fit our expectations
or don't behave in familiar ways that are easy for
us to understand.

Speaker 1 (30:29):
Yeah, that's interesting. I mean also can't help but think that,
like the basic hitchhiker scenario, the experience of picking up
a hitchhiker, I guess it's something that I mean a
lot of people have never done this, maybe even more
so today, but you've seen it in movies, you've seen
it heard it in stories. So the basic scenario is
pretty much like culturally intact. And then this is a

supernatural twist on that that you know, I guess it
doesn't particularly have survival information or social and information. To
go back to that earlier study, I mean, it's not
implied that the ghost is harmful, but it's like there's
something about the everyday quality of it, like you're saying,
like it's very relatable. It's relatable to this reality of

modern life.

Speaker 2 (31:13):
So this is totally a tangent off of what we're
talking about. But I would almost say that there is
somehow implied social and survival information in any ghost story.
Even though it's hard to express what that social or
survival information is, it might have something to do with
proof of the afterlife. You know, something about life after death,

and the experience of any ghost has some kind of
inherent survival type value to us, and ghosts are usually
understood to have some kind of message to the living,
which has a kind of gossip or social information quality
to it. At least that's my take.

Speaker 1 (31:50):
Yeah, and I guess you could also make an argument
that the hitchhiker was not what they seemed, they were
a ghost. This is basically just a supernatural twist on
the hitchhiker was not what they seemed, which could arguably
have survival and social commentary within it right in a
more mundane way, like you know, you know that there's

some sort of criminal threat there or something or some
sort of unknown that one should be wary of. And
this is just taking a mundane threat and transforming it
into a supernatural threat on some level. Because you don't
what a ghost in your car, you don't know what's
gonna happen.

Speaker 2 (32:25):
They might get ectoplasm on your passenger seat.

Speaker 1 (32:28):
Yeah, they might scare you. I mean We've all heard
enough ghost stories that don't involve automobiles to know it
can go any number of ways. Your hitchhiker vanishes, you
finally pull over the gas station, and then bam, hook
on the outside handle of the car.

Speaker 2 (32:41):
That's a good twist. At first it's a ghost, she vanishes,
but then she reappears with a hook.

Speaker 1 (32:46):

Speaker 2 (32:47):
Okay, but here's another interesting twist on what they found
in this study. So remember the first variable was, you know,
does familiarity with the story, whether the story fits in
the box of your cultural expectations, does that affect how
well you can remember and transmit it. Answer is yes,
it does. If the story fits in the box, it's
easier for you to remember and transmit it. The other

thing is does the implied audience of the story matter.
They were testing the hypothesis that a listener understood as
strict in terms of expecting accuracy would produce more accurate
recall than one understood as lenient. So the way they
did this was, on one hand, they said, okay, reproduce

this story for a friend. Here's the story for you
to memorize. Now you need to reproduce it and tell
it to a friend. Second option is reproduce this and
tell it to a police officer. Well, that changes a lot, yes,
And they found this did indeed matter for one type
of story more than the other. So they say recall
was better for a strict audience than a lenient audience.

People did remember better when talking to the cop, but
this only really applied to one of the story, So
recall was more accurate when talking to the cop for
the familiar story the Vanishing Hitchhiker, but recall seemed to
be equally bad for the War of the Ghosts. The

having a strict cop listening to your recounting did not
really improve recall for the story that was more difficult
to remember anyway, which I don't know. I guess you
could interpret that multiple ways. But that makes me wonder if, well,
you know, when you're talking to a friend, it signals
you're you're probably just not putting that much effort into

being strictly accurate in reproducing a story, even when in
cases when you could be, so the case with the
familiar story that's easier to reproduce, but when you're trying
to reproduce an unfamiliar story that doesn't really fit with
your schema it is, it's sort of impossible to do
even if you're putting that extra effort.

Speaker 1 (34:53):
In Yeah, I mean, I guess in speaking to a
police officer about your ghost story, did something about it
should be actionable, right, Like, even if it's not a
ghost story, Like, if you're telling a police officer about it,
it must be because you want the police to do something.
And therefore that I guess could impact your attention to
details and so forth.

Speaker 2 (35:13):
But anyway, at the end today, I wanted to come
back to something we talked about earlier in the episode,
which has emphasize my feeling that there are two sides
to the coin and they're both true. One is that
serial reproduction of information between people, you know, information passing
along the grapevine between people should not be relied upon
as representing what that information was accurately at the beginning.

You just should not trust that. And at the same time,
you should not think about serial reproduction or transmission chains
as they occur in human culture as bad. It's part
of what culture is and it provides a lot of
good things. It provides a lot of the entertainment and
the learning and the spice of life, even if it
does not objectively accurately usually preserve the information from the

beginning of the chain.

Speaker 1 (36:03):
See. This is all great stuff that I think should
have been included in the elementary school telephone games that
does so many of us play.

Speaker 2 (36:10):
Well, I don't know, I mean, it kind of is
all there. Like the game, you recognize that the message
doesn't make it to the end intact, so you get
a lesson there like, oh, don't believe everything you hear.
But also the game is fun and the fun comes
from the failure.

Speaker 1 (36:26):
Fail and distort. This is how you amuse yourself. This
is the lesson to the telephone game I get. But
it is really revealing. Like I said, I just didn't
think about it much when I was a kid playing
this game. But yeah, when you looking at these studies
and discussing, you know, the out effects of transmission of
rumors and myths and legends, urban legends, et cetera. Yeah,

it really gets fascinating.

Speaker 2 (36:48):
Another thing I was thinking about was how when we
talk about rumors, I feel like we still often have
an understanding of this being entirely word of mouth, just
like one person talking to another and then that person
talking to the next person. But it seems to me
the much more common route of rumors today involves some
kind of media in between there. So it may go

like a word of mouth from one person to the next,
and then to the internet to a written form, and
then somebody reading that piece of information on the Internet,
and then telling somebody in person, and then them posting
on the internet and reading it. So you're also having
these media changes back and forth that are not really
showing up quite so much in at least any of

the experiments we've looked at, because all of them either
went you know, they either go entirely oral or entirely
text based.

Speaker 1 (37:40):
Yeah, that's a good point. I should also just remind
everyone probably don't go to the police with your ghost story.
I'm just maybe exceptions to that rule, you know, use
your best judgment. But it's also hard for me to
get past that idea of just like I think I
saw a ghost, bet I called the police.

Speaker 2 (37:56):
I disagree. I think you should only call the police
with your ghost story.

Speaker 1 (38:00):
Hmm, agree to disagree.

Speaker 2 (38:03):
I'm kidding. Do not call nine one one and tie
up the phone lines with your ghost story.

Speaker 1 (38:08):
Yes, tell a friend, tell a close friend. All right,
We're gonna go ahead and close out this episode, but
we'll be back on Tuesday. So you know, hey, keep
writing into us because on Mondays we do listener mail
and then we do our core episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
On Wednesdays we do a short form Monster Factor Artifact episode,

and Fridays we set aside most serious concerns to just
talk about a weird film on Weird House Cinema.

Speaker 2 (38:33):
Huge thanks to our audio producer JJ Posway. If you
would like to get in touch with this 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 (38:54):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my Heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio you
up Apple Podcasts, or wherever you're listening to your favorite shows.

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