I’m a psychologist and I do experiments. Well, actually, these days I help design experiments with graduate students, and the actual experimentation is carried out by a mini-army of student researchers. Typically if a publication results from these efforts, the graduate student most involved in the project becomes first author, and I typically occupy the last spot in the author line. Others whose contribution warrant it are given intermediate spots. A near-crisis emerged some years back when two graduate students (I’ll call them Mary and Jim) were each insisting that they deserved to be first author. They both had worthy reasons (albeit different ones of course) for why they were deserving of the coveted first position. I was wracked with indecision about how to resolve this dilemma. Someone was going to be unhappy and stew over the injustice of my decision. I could see no good way out of this dilemma.
Over the next few days I spoke to Mary and Jim privately. One thing I told them about was the psychological research on prestige-enhancing memory distortions. People remember their grades as better than they were. People remember that they voted in elections that they did not vote in. People remember that their children walked and talked at an earlier age than they really did. These are some prime examples of how we distort our memories in ways that allow us to feel better about ourselves, and perhaps allow us to live a happier life. But another finding is that people overestimate their personal contribution to a joint effort. If you ask people who have contributed to joint effort to provide a percentage that is their contribution, the total might add to l50 per cent. Recognizing this human tendency allows one to adjust the estimate of one’s own contribution and feel less frustrated with our partners (whether these are life partners contributing to the housework, or work partners contributing to a research effort, or any collection of two or more who work for a common goal). I talked with Mary and Jim, individually, about this phenomenon.
Within a few days, I heard back from the students. Mary came in to my office first and said that she had decided that Jim could be first author. I felt some relief. Then, the next day, Jim came in and said that he had decided that Mary could be first author. At this point, I actually started to cry. It brought to mind the O. Henry sentimental story about a married couple enduring severe economic difficulties that made it hard for them to buy Christmas gifts for one another. She sold her beautiful hair to by a chain for his prized watch. Not knowing this, he sold his watch to by combs for her lovely hair. These mutually sacrificial gifts were compared to the Magi of biblical times – wonderfully wise men who brought gifts to a new-born King. Mary and Jim were my Magi.
Elizabeth F. Loftus is Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science at University of California, Irvine. She is the world’s foremost authority on the fallibility of human memory.