Recently I’ve been researching historical accounts of UFO sightings/alien abductions (this topic never ceases to fascinate me) and exploring possible scientific explanations for their occurrences when I stumbled across a theory known as the bizarreness effect. I thought I would share a little of what I’ve learned of this theory and would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.
The Bizarreness Effect
Early studies on bizarre imagery have produced contradictory results; some researchers have suggested that the bizarre imagery effects memory recall while others, using similar conditions in their labs, have not obtained that effect. It was not until the 1980’s that McDaniel & Einstein theorized a paradigm in which consistent results were demonstrated. Researchers showed that bizarre images are best remembered when mixed with common ones. This phenomenon is known as the bizarreness effect and it refers to the greater recall of stimuli that have bizarre or unusual connotations as compared to those that are common.
This enhancement of bizarre, relative to common, sentence recall is believed to arise from a distinctiveness of the bizarre material, an uncomplicated sentence structure, and free recall of the material. The following is an example of a bizarre sentence, taken from McDaniel & Einstein in 1986:
The DOG rode the BICYCLE down the STREET.
One can see that though the sentence is reasonably simple in structure it may require more cognitive effort in order to visualize. In an unmixed list, where bizarre and common stimuli were presented separately, the noun combinations of bizarre stimuli are not distinct enough to elicit a higher response recall then an unmixed list of common material. However, in a mixed list, in which both common and bizarre are presented simultaneously, the bizarreness effect is shown abidingly.
Though researchers have come to understand what variables induce the bizarreness effect, it not clear as to what mechanisms account for effect in the first place. The current understanding of the bizarreness effect suggests that it is a combination of theories based on the difference in storage and retrieval of the images. The storage theory proposes that common stimuli are stored better into memory than bizarre stimuli. The retrieval theory suggests that when bizarre stimuli are compared to common stimuli it produces a “surprise” response. This response provides an extra cue for the retrieval of the bizarre stimuli.
An understanding about the mechanics of the bizarreness effect has a multitude of applications. For the purpose of this topic, an understanding of imagery mnemonics are applied to enhance the recall of eyewitnesses used in UFO sightings or possibly even alien abduction accounts. For investigators, if they can understand what is it about bizarre images that make them so remarkable, they can manipulate certain variables to improve the overall memory of the eyewitness and reduce or eliminate wrongful accounts.
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Clark, S., & Loftus, E. (1996). The Construction of Space Alien Abduction Memories Psychological Inquiry, 7 (2), 140-143 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0702_5
Kelley-Romano, S. (2006). Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives Communication Quarterly, 54 (3), 383-406 DOI: 10.1080/01463370600878545
McDaniel MA, Einstein GO, DeLosh EL, May CP, & Brady P (1995). The bizarreness effect: it’s not surprising, it’s complex. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 21 (2), 422-435 PMID: 7738508
Macklin, C., & McDaniel, M. (2005). The bizarreness effect: Dissociation between item and source memory Memory, 13 (7), 682-689 DOI: 10.1080/09658210444000304
Worthen, J., & Wood, V. (2001). A Disruptive Effect of Bizarreness on Memory for Relational and Contextual Details of Self-Performed and Other-Performed Acts The American Journal of Psychology, 114 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1423609