Thursday, 28 June 2012

The new psychology of everyday playing cards

Aces are easier to see and remember than other cards
Playing cards, used for games and magic, are so familiar, yet we know remarkably little about the way we perceive and think about them. Are some cards more memorable than others? Are some easier to identify? With so much at stake in games like poker, and card magic a staple of family entertainment, it's surprising that no-one has thought to study this before.

Jay Olson, Alym Amlani and Ronald Rensink first tested if some Western playing cards are easier to spot than others. Ninety-six students were shown visual streams of 26 playing cards on a computer, each displayed for a tenth of a second, and they had to say if a certain target card was present in the stream or not. The students were pretty good, achieving an accuracy rate of 80 per cent, but they performed better for some cards than others. For example, they detected the Ace of Spades more easily than any other card, and they detected Aces in general more easily than other cards - probably because of their simple, distinct pattern. Surprisingly, face cards (e.g. Jack, Queen etc) were no easier to spot than number cards, despite being more distinctive. Another curious finding was the students' particular tendency to say the two red sixes (Six of Hearts and Six of Diamonds) were present when they weren't. It's not clear why.

To test the memorability of cards, Olson's team employed a similar methodology. The students saw a stream of seven cards, each displayed for a quarter of a second, and then they were asked to say whether a particular card had been in the stream or not. Again, the Ace of Spades especially, and all Aces to a lesser extent, were more memorable than other cards.

What about likeability? Students were shown pairs of cards and in each case had to say which they preferred. Regards numerical value, the participants liked the highest (10) and lowest (2) cards the most. And they had a tendency to prefer Spades and Hearts over Clubs and Diamonds - maybe because of their rank in games, or their curved shape. Two cards were especially popular - the Ace of Hearts and the King of Hearts. There was also a gender difference in taste. Men tended to prefer higher value cards and women to prefer lower value.

Finally, the researchers looked at the verbal and visual accessibility of cards. To do this they asked a new batch of hundreds of students (some of them online and some in the lab) to "Name a playing card" or to "Visualise a playing card" and then say which it was. Simply asked to name a card, there was a strong bias for choosing the Ace of Spades, followed by the Queen of Hearts and then other high-ranking cards. When participants chose a number card, there was a bias for naming 3s and 7s the most and 6s the least (a phenomenon well known by magicians). Overall, cards from the Spades and Hearts were chosen more than the other two suits. There was a gender difference again: men tended to name the Queen of Hearts more than women, and women more often named the King of Hearts than men. These same results were pretty much repeated when participants were asked to visualise a card before naming it.

The different card features investigated here tended to interact in ways you might expect. For example, the same cards that participants tended to say mistakenly were in a visual stream, also tended to be the most accessible verbally and visually. More accessible cards were also liked more.

Olson's team acknowledged that their study was limited by the fact that they only studied a sample of Canadian students. But still, they said their work could "serve as a foundation for more rigorous studies of card magic", and more generally could "provide new perspectives on how people perceive and evaluate everyday objects."


Jay Alson and Alym Amlani (2012). Perceptual and cognitive characteristics of common playing cards. Perception DOI: 10.1068/p7175

Read more Digest posts on the psychology of magic.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

1 comment:

KGilkey said...

Playing cards are pretty much an every day object to most people. They are present on tv, movies, etc. The shapes of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs have been around for so long that it would be safe to say that they are easy to recognize. So why are some more recognizable and memorable than others? When your students were shown the cards and they "liked" the highest or lowest card, perhaps they were being influenced by the serial position effect. The card may not necessarily be the one that they "like" but since it was the highest or lowest, it is more likely the one that they remember the most. When simply asked to name a card, it is interesting that men tended to name the queen of hearts and women tended to name the king of hearts. Could this be because the heart represent a pleasant and "loving" mood sensation? Love is a very strong and powerful emotion and the heart is the symbol of that love, so if asked just to pick a card, I can fully understand why the first card that comes to mind is one with a heart.

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