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July 1, 2008 11:35 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word or term for the following condition?

I've noticed a phenomenon that pops up from time to time, that for lack of a better term, I'll call "cultural memory loss". I wonder if other people have also discovered this, and so may have given it a more precise name or definition. I'll give two examples of what I'm talking about.

When I moved to Seattle from Montana in 1987, I was astounded at how the city of Seattle basically shut down when snow fell. Local TV began continuous broadcasting of the "snow emergency". At the time I assumed that Seattle rarely got snow, and so was reacting to a truly novel event. But as the years went by, I realized that it snows in Seattle many winters, yet the populace continues to freak out as if they forgot that this was a more or less regular event.

The following event seems to occur with some regularity, yet people seem unable to perceive it as a pattern;

A prominent female celebrity takes her clothes off for a magazine photo shoot. This is considered somewhat scandalous, and it then reported as "news" in mainstream media. I actually posted this as a humorous "psychic" prediction in late 2007 for 2008 events:


Of course Miley Cyrus confirmed this "psychic prediction".

I'm thinking this phenomenon could be described as "historical amnesia", or "pattern recognition failure" or some such. I'm betting that someone besides myself has already discussed this, and perhaps given it a particular name.

So what is this name or term?
posted by Tube to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Good luck. I've been trying for year to get and official name my discovered phenomenon of false-memory residual syndrome (in which, for instance, you get mad at someone for screwing you over, and then you find out they didn't screw you over, but you will always hold a residual negative memory of that person screwing you over). I think they're slow in naming this stuff.
posted by troybob at 12:35 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

um...'an official name for'
posted by troybob at 12:36 AM on July 2, 2008

Graves and Hodge, in "The Long Week-End" couldn't think of a good term, either (from the second paragraph of the intro -- your question made me think of this passage):

. . . the more newspapers people read, the shorter grows their historical memory . . .

Although he applies it to the much more weighty topic of the antebellum U.S. south, David Piendack's term "willful forgetting" could maybe also apply to snowy days in Seattle if the focus is on the hassle caused to commuters, etc. . . maybe?
posted by Bixby23 at 12:50 AM on July 2, 2008

As to the Seattle thing: It sounds like the freaking out thing is kinda part of the tradition of the onset of snowy days. Everybody likes a little drama, a little something to shake up the routine. If someone grows up in Seattle and sees all the adults freaking out about the first snow, that seems the appropriate reaction as one gets older. Maybe it's less a loss of memory and more a conditioning thing...
posted by troybob at 1:10 AM on July 2, 2008

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I've never heard a formal term for what you describe, but I think "historical amnesia" is as good a descriptor as any.
posted by SteveInMaine at 1:43 AM on July 2, 2008

What your describing isn't a fault of the population, rather its a fault in the media. See: silly season.

"silly season". Silly season is defined as the time when the parliament is on recess and all the politicians and better paid journalists consequently leave London heading for Tuscany.

The newspapers are still printed, but they just don't have any news in them or anyone who can write doing any of the writing.

Wiki link
posted by munchbunch at 1:44 AM on July 2, 2008

Freud called it "negative hallucination," although he stopped using the term later. Perhaps people repress upsetting things like bad weather. I know I tend not to think about Maine winters during the summer, and I'm always shocked at the first huge snowfall or really cold day. Freud said it has to do with the pleasure principle.

I'm not a huge fan of Freud, but I did my high school thesis on him and the idea has some merit as far as I'm concerned. I've done things like look for lost objects and literally not seen them because I was so convinced that I'd lost them forever. Then someone points it out and I'm like "how did that get there?" It's really interesting how people can convince themselves that something is real or not real (or happened or did not happen - look at witness memory in court trials, people will swear up and down a car was blue if that's what they remember, even if it was actually red, especially if others tell them it was blue). Also, Americans are really into immediate gratification, that's why mags like People sell, it's an endorphin rush. Ever notice how they put TV commercials in right at the most tense moment when you're watching an exciting movie, especially at near the end? That's because the advertisers know that's when people are focusing the most and they zap you with the image (and often the sound is quite loud). It's a form of brainwashing. Miley Cyrus was touted as a good little conservative girl, wholesome, and that image was so imbedded into the public's mind that they were shocked by the photo.

I avoid watching TV a lot. I mute the commercials when I do watch. I would call it either negative hallucination or mass hypnosis based on media hype.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:38 AM on July 2, 2008

Everybody likes a little drama, a little something to shake up the routine.

Yeah, I think its a case of everybody being happy to play along for the sake of having something to talk about. It's a bit like needing to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy a movie.
posted by tomcooke at 4:12 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's the same thing that makes every British man of legal age hastily pull on a pair of shorts on the first sunny day in April. "Ah!" they all inwardly remark, "The beginning of Summer! Fetch forth my whangee stick and roll down the roof of the two seater. Today, I think I shall sally forth into the Peak District and do pastoral dances!"

Then it rains for three and a half months.

I've always just called it "Idiocy".
posted by Jofus at 5:31 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't heard a specific term, but I'm going to start using a twist on yours: cultural amnesia.

But, I wonder if this isn't so much forgetfulness as it is the media needing something to report. The same thing happens every summer in bigger cities when the heat and humidity goes through the roof.

By the way, I live in Montana, and, other than warnings about not leaving your pets out when it's 30 below zero, the newscasts pretty much don't freak out over any kind of weather, as you no doubt had noticed. Maybe it's just not a big ratings-grabber here like it is in Seattle and other bigger cities.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:36 AM on July 2, 2008

I think you are looking at it from the wrong perspective. Its not a forgetting, its an implanting of another routine over the memory. Routine is enormously important to humans. Once one is established it is very hard to break. So in the 355 day out of the year that it does not snow in Seattle, it's pretty much the same old thing: wake up, drive to work in light drizzle, work, drive home in light drizzle, sleep, rinse repeat 354 more times. When that handfull of snow days rolls along it is outside the pattern and is therefore the anomaly. If everyday were a snow day, or even if a significant portion of days were snow days, as in Montana or, say, Ely, Minnesota, then the routine would be to drive in snow, that day where you don't have to break or hit the curves slowly would be outside the norm.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:37 AM on July 2, 2008

There's a good Muscovite example. Every summer foreign journalists write articles about pukh, a kind of fluff shed from Balsam trees that clogs the streets.

It's not caused by collective amnesia, but by lazy journalists looking for an easy story.
posted by roofus at 6:03 AM on July 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't have a term for it, per se, but it's probably related to the same impulses that lead to procrastination and laziness. Over here in the Boston region, it happens twice a year. In the winter, people drive like idiots in the first snow storm, though to our credit, we don't shut down entire towns for half an inch of snow.

It also happens in summer, where despite relatively high humidity year round, people are shocked, shocked that the temperatures can get into the 90s and there's a sudden mad dash for air conditioners, and stores sell out. Despite the fact that they've been on sale for 2 months, people don't buy them until the heat hits. I'm sure the scalpers love it.

I definitely wouldn't blame journalists though. While they're always looking for fluff news on slow days, this phenomenon is definitely not caused by them.
posted by explosion at 6:34 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

yet the populace continues to freak out as if they forgot that this was a more or less regular event.

I'm not quite sure why this has to be attributed to people forgetting. A gigantic snowstorm around these parts is a common occurrence, but it still makes the news because roads become dangerous, airports shut down and schools close. I don't think it's because people have forgotten it's a regular event.

Obviously some media outlets blow these types of stories out of proportion, but such is 24-hour news. This is an extreme example, obviously, but it seems like saying that an earthquake in San Francisco isn't newsworthy because they're reasonably common and to be expected.
posted by Adam_S at 7:05 AM on July 2, 2008

I think that many people actually do perceive these types of events as part of a pattern, but in a different way than you realize.

For example, with the celebrity thing, that's a form of entertainment. It's not news that any random celebrity does anything in particular, whether it's posing nude, adopting a third-world child, tussling with paparazzi, or whatever. However, the latest case and most recent circumstance is entertainment, part of the continuing quasi-reality show that seems to push out real news and quality entertainment in the mass media. They might as well devote 3 minutes out of every 30 to the "celebrity report," just like they do the weather and the sports. I am not endorsing that idea!

Likewise, weather, especially a change in the weather, is always news. Where I live we have lots of severe weather: thunderstorms with high winds, occasional funnel clouds, sometimes tropical storms or hurricanes in the summer. The immediate instance -- i.e., a storm warning -- is definitely news and always leads the broadcast. People are warned to take cover. They run a beeping noise and crawl on the bottom of the screen. The possibility -- i.e., a storm in the Western Caribbean that might not ever make it into the Gulf to threaten us -- also gets the lead. It's a big story. It's a potential threat. And even if it comes nowhere near us, it is (for better or worse) also a form of entertainment. Viewers get to congratulate themselves that they didn't have to board up, didn't have to evacuate again, commiserate about the last evacuation, and so on.

As for the forgetfulness, I think that's a different phenomenon entirely. I lived in DC years ago and people never remembered what to do about snow, and snow removal in the city was always a big challenge. It's not that it doesn't snow every winter; of course it does. It's rather that the frequency and amount of snow is such that the city and residents are seldom ready for any significant snowfall. It isn't Buffalo or Chicago, and the city doesn't keep as many snowplows on hand, and so on.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:12 AM on July 2, 2008

Just to totally geek out this thread, I should mention that this concept is a running joke on the new series of Doctor Who. Every few weeks aliens invade and the earth comes within inches of utter destruction and everyone's calling it the end of the world, and then they all just sort of write it off and forget about it and are shocked, shocked, the next time it happens.

Doctor: I encountered Torchwood recently at the battle of Canary Wharf.
Donna: What happened then?
Doctor: Cybermen in every home? Skies over London full of Daleks? No?
Donna: I was in Spain.
Doctor: They had Cybermen in Spain!

posted by you're a kitty! at 7:21 AM on July 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

But as the years went by, I realized that it snows in Seattle many winters, yet the populace continues to freak out as if they forgot that this was a more or less regular event.

I've noticed the same thing in Seattle, and have also noticed that it extends beyond just snow. In fact, when this heat wave we're having is over I already know that when it starts raining again I'll have to leave the house for work 45 minutes earlier than on a normal rainy day because enough people will have forgotten how to drive safely in the rain that the roads will be clogged with cars that have crashed into one another. I don't have a name for it, but "You're all a bunch of %#*$&;* idiots!" has been my explanation of choice.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:33 AM on July 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

So many of these examples are actually about the press breathlessly reporting on something as if new. I think you need to separate that from the phenomenon you're looking for, which is real people losing their memory.

I suspect 90 percent of this is just media manufacture out of laziness. It's a "better" story if you report it as new, unprecedented, a big deal...
posted by rokusan at 8:43 AM on July 2, 2008

In an individual, this could be considered a sort of cognitive bias, perhaps the recency effect. What you're asking about is happening at a cultural level, so perhaps it's a different phenomenon, or perhaps it's the same thing acted out many times over. I'd be inclined to call it "collective amnesia" if it needs its own name.
posted by adamrice at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2008

Best answer: Cultural amnesia. And be sure to always add that great quote from Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
posted by wheat at 10:17 AM on July 2, 2008

This phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with the recency effect. The recency effect is the empirically demonstrated tendency to be more likely to remember words at the end of a list. It is complemented by the primacy effect, by which one is more likely to remember words at the beginning of a list. The first few and last few items 'stick' in the memory more. It's a straight-up cognitive thing, and is entirely unrelated from the 'collective amnesia' (or whatever it gets named) discussed in this thread.

posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:29 PM on July 2, 2008

Response by poster: As far as Seattle snow goes, I can guarantee that it's more than just a media event. I've been at work on a number of occasions when it started to snow, and it seems like I've entered the Twilight Zone. Everyone gets excited, and it's all people start talking about. One night I spoke on the telephone to another pharmacist at a store several miles away. Her obligatory question to me was, "is it snowing over there", to which I was sorely tempted to retort; "is it dark over there"...

The term "cultural amnesia" sounds about as good as it gets. Thank you all for the input.
posted by Tube at 5:15 PM on July 2, 2008

you're a kitty!: You left out Donna's fantastic reply!

Donna: I was in Spain.
The Doctor: They had Cybermen in Spain!
Donna: Scuba diving...

posted by lioness at 2:38 PM on July 4, 2008

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