Contagious forgetting

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!


Filed under Coincidence / Synchronicity, Psychology

3 responses to “Contagious forgetting

  1. A clear cut instance of Morphic Resonance – it will now start happening all over the place, more and more, until hardly anybody can read a clock properly…

  2. Yes, I did have to think twice about posting this, lest I pass on the virus, causing my readers to miss 9:40 appointments and forget about Monaco…

    If you’re serious about proposing MR as a possible explanation, I don’t think it really works. The theory is that MR works equally well across all distances of time and space, so while it can explain why an error might be repeated by someone else, it can’t explain the main “coincidence” elements of my experience — that I repeated the error of someone I am very close to, and within a very short time frame.

  3. No – I wasn’t really serious.

    As a possible explanation… I tend to think that husbands and wives have a spontaneous tendency to harmonize on some (mostly superficial) aspects of psychology (while remaining utterly distinct in others that re more fundamental). This is why marriages are not often complementary – but husbands and wives converge on sharing the same virtues and defects. Perhaps this is for the best, otherwose we would always be correcting one another (I mean, even more than we already do…).

    More prosaically, there seems to be a difficulty in settling certain confusions – e.g. My Dad used to get confused between Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge and Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles – which led to an embarrassing scene in a parents’ evening with an English teacher.

    (I mean, embarrassing to my teenage sister, whose teacher it was – because my Dad was talking confidently about the TV dramatization of Hardy to empahsize how much he liked Trollope, because the English teacher was working on a Masters thesis on Trollope…)

    But the more my Dad tried to sort-out which was which (before attending subsequent parent’s evenings. and on my sister’s instructions), the more often he got it wrong, so that the scene of cross-purposes was repeated once or twice with variations – incrementally escalating the levels of all-round embarrassement…

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