July 26, 2012

By Angelina Gomez ’14

My parents recently went on a vacation to Hawaii. While talking to my mom about the trip, I heard about the colors of the flowers they saw on a hike, how she felt about taking time off work, how she had arranged for someone to take care of their cat while they were away, the flavors of the fish they ate and more. My dad’s report of the week: “We hiked. We swam at bit. The hotel was nice. It was fun!”

I’m sure others have noticed a general difference between the stories told by males and females. When you ask a woman how her weekend went, you had better be ready to hear all of the details, including explanations of emotions, relationship dynamics and relevant previous events. Conversely, men are more likely to stick to factual accounts of what happened, where and with whom. This observable difference is more than just a stereotype: Studies show that men and women have different abilities to remember events in their lives. In the field of psychology, this is known as autobiographical memory, and most research has found that women are much better at it than men.


The author, in front of an oft-quoted film (at right)

But are women actually better at recalling events in our lives, or are we simply more loquacious storytellers? The “factual bias” that men display could deter them from telling the rich, detailed stories that women tend to tell. The basic idea is that, when men are told, “Tell me about an event from your past,” they interpret that to mean, “Tell me all the facts from an event,” while women hear, “Tell me about an event and provide insight into how and why it happened.

This summer, Matthew Schulkind, associate professor of psychology, is testing whether this factual bias extends to other areas of memory, using subjects’ ability to recall movie quotes as a measure. He has noticed that only males seem to have internal caches of movie lines that they can spontaneously produce and quote at one another. Could he turn this anecdotal evidence into scientific evidence? Throughout last semester, he asked students to recall movie quotes and dumped the data into a massive Excel spreadsheet that would make Hollywood proud.

And this is where I come in. My task this summer is to sift through that spreadsheet and code the accuracy of all 635 quotes. This means that I get paid to search the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), watch YouTube clips, download entire movie scripts and generally comb the Internet to find movie quotes. Needless to say, I love this job.

Let me give you an example of a typical day’s labor. Subject Number 6’s seventh quote was “Lunch will be canceled today due to a lack of hustle,” supposedly said by Tony Perkins in the movie Heavyweights. Eleven words. The actual quote, according to IMDb, is, “Lunch has been canceled today due to lack of hustle.” Ten words. Therefore, the subject got eight words, the character and the movie correct. So I go to my spreadsheet and enter a code that states all this. I am proud to say that I just finished coding all the quotes, ending with a sassy quip from Clueless.

A portion of the survey from subsequent phase of the
study. How many can you recognize? (Answers are below.)

I’ve found commonalities in the subjects’ selection of quote-worthy movies. To sum it up: my generation likes oddball humor, chick flicks and Harry Potter. There are also a lot of quotes from animated movies (Finding Nemo and Shrek were the favorites) and other movies from childhood (The Princess Bridecleaned up, with 12 quotes). I have a theory that these movies hold a special place in undergraduate hearts, as we are letting go of our early years, and thus we recall the trials of Princess Buttercup and her Westley with ease and fondness

However, what I refer to as the “ridiculous movie” category was by far the most popular. In first place, with a whopping 38 quotes, was Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the source of such salient lines as, “I’m in a glass box of emotion!”; “I love lamp”; and, of course, “You pooped in the refrigerator? And you ate the whole wheel of cheese? Heck, I’m not even mad; that’s amazing,” spoken to a semi-communicative dog. The next most-quoted movie was Step Brothers, another Will Ferrell flick, with 19 quotes. In fact, I’m going to simplify my earlier summary: Young adults today remember, word-for-word, what Will Ferrell says in movies better than we remember our grandmothers’ birthdays.

The point of this study, however, is not to comment on the movie preferences of undergraduates (that’s just fun) but rather to see how accurately people can remember quotes. As the statistical analyses are forthcoming, I can make only general observations: Some subjects were better at technical accuracy, and others wrote quotes that, while identifiable, were only vaguely correct—a trend Schulkind was hoping to see in the data, as it indicates a factual bias. I wasn’t given the subjects’ genders, so I can’t make any preemptive conclusions, but I am excited to see how the study pans out.

I am just one of many students doing research with various professors this summer. I have one friend who, for an LJST project, has to watch hours of footage from executions; another who is using GIS (geographic information system) software to analyze deforestation in Mexico; and a third who excitedly told me that her bacterial cells have finally matured and now she can infuse them with estrogen. It is hugely exciting to take part in the process of bringing more information into the world. And we aren’t even grad students! So what may seem like another depressing day of hangings or another fun day of Star Wars quotes is ultimately one of the many benefits of being an Amherst College student.

Answers: 1) Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), A Streetcar Named Desire; 2) Brody (Roy Scheider), Jaws; 3) Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger); The Terminator 4) Captain (Strother Martin), Cool Hand Luke; 5) James Bond, any James Bond movie 6) Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), Titanic