My wife and I are both teachers, and in addition to our main jobs with our respective institutions, we both teach English classes at the local YMCA on Tuesday nights. Our classes are at the same time (6:30-9:40), so we usually just go together on my motorcycle.
This past Tuesday, my class ran several minutes late, so I expected my wife to be waiting for me when I finished — but she was still in class. She finally came out nearly half an hour after the scheduled time and explained to me what had happened. She hadn’t lost track of time — on the contrary, she had been keeping an eye on the clock — but for some reason she had misread it as saying it was about nine o’clock, when in fact it was about ten.
The very next day, I was teaching my regular classes at the college, which are also supposed to finish at 9:40, and the same thing happened to me! I glanced at the clock from time to time as I was teaching but always misread the time as being an hour earlier than it actually was. Towards the end I was a little worried because I had almost finished the material I had prepared but still had (I thought) 40 more minutes of class time to fill. When one of the staff knocked on the door and reminded me that it was time to wrap up, I said, “No, I’ve still got 40 minutes, see?” and pointed at the clock — at which point I finally realized my mistake. Quite embarrassing.
So is it just a coincidence that my wife and I made the same unlikely mistake within 24 hours of each other? The odds seem rather low. I won’t say I’ve never made this kind of mistake before, but surely only a few times in my adult life. It seems that hearing about my wife’s mistake somehow caused me to make the same mistake myself.
But it seems very strange that hearing a story about not noticing something could cause you to not-notice the same thing. Hearing something mentioned, no matter the context, puts that thing in your mind. It’s proverbial that when someone tells you not to think of a white bear, you immediately think of a white bear — so when someone talks about not noticing the correct time, you’d think that would make you more likely to notice the correct time. If I was in fact influenced by my wife’s mistake, the psychological mechanism of that influence is a mystery.
Something similar happened to me last year when I forgot the name of the country of which Monte Carlo is the capital, apparently due to the influence of a story Freud tells about how he once forgot the same thing — with the added twist that I read Freud’s story the day after my own memory blank!