Page 4 of 4   <      

This Is Your Life*

Before trying to tap that account, you might want to bone up on obscure family history the security-screening process might want you to provide.
Before trying to tap that account, you might want to bone up on obscure family history the security-screening process might want you to provide. (By Chip East -- Bloomberg News)

It's like a graded "This is Your Life: Online Edition." It's a way of taking you back to places you once lived, people you once associated with, things you once bought. It's a five-minute refresher course in what it has meant to be you, with parameters defined by a security company and its algorithms.

But what if you fail that course, blanking on an address/name/car color? Not to get all Woody Allen, but does that mean you're not you? Or are you just missing out on the things that all people are supposed to remember?

Augusta Hesse. I really don't know her.

I think.

* * *

So you can't remember your first boyfriend. So what. What does that even mean, anyway? Do they want the guy you kissed in eighth grade during that awkward game of Seven Minutes in Heaven? Or the guy who took you to "Crocodile Dundee" a year later? Stupid question.

But what if this is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts -- not affecting us individually but impacting society as a whole? When the memories we are expected to have become codified, they can work as an indirect commentary on what kind of lives we should lead.

David Rubin is a professor of psychological brain sciences at Duke University who studies the way we develop autobiographical memory. He is, he says, a complete failure at security questions. "They ask me about the homecoming queen but I went to an all-boys school. We didn't have one. I can't remember what we called my childhood goldfish. The city I was born? Too easy. You ever heard my [Boston] accent, you could figure out that one."

The problem, Rubin says, is that security questions are geared toward people who have led "picket fence" lives -- married high school sweethearts, never divorced, never left home towns. These people have stable memories because they are surrounded by the cues that cement recollections. Remembering your favorite childhood treat is easy when you still drive past the Steak 'n Shake every afternoon.

But most people's lives are messy, filled with spouses who ask for divorces, pets who die, best-friends-forever who move away only to be replaced with new best-friends-forever.

Most companies try to keep their questions as universally applicable as possible -- or to provide a wide range of options for people who aren't married, don't have children, didn't attend college. Daniel Levitin, who studies cognitive psychology at McGill University, speculates that so many questions refer back to adolescence because raging hormones make us perceive events from that period as particularly important.

But even those universal questions are not so universal. Wachovia's security question team is a geek squad not of cognitive psychologists but of computer programmers and risk management specialists. They're great with security. But as Levitin points out, "The kind of person becoming a computer programmer is not necessarily representative. They might think a reasonable question is, 'Who was Mr. Spock's second cousin?' "

At Carnegie Mellon's HCII, Hong says, there is a frequently repeated motto: "The user is not like me." "When we look at how we can use technology in homes to aid families, it's really easy to think, 'Well, I grew up in a family. I know what it's like,' " Hong says. "But then you start designing for your specific needs."

No one is going to be representative of everyone. We all remember the things that we personally find important.

And so if you don't share the same values as the question writers -- if you never went to a basketball game, if you didn't have a best man at your wedding -- then what? "We feel guilty when we learn that a lot of people remember something that we don't," Levitin says. "It's a strange part of our national psyche. Even as we're rugged individualists, we want to fit in."

So, being good humans, we learn things. We learn that we are supposed to remember our middle school mascots. That we are supposed to clear away brain shelf space for our homecoming queens -- even if we weren't personally invited to homecoming.

Picture that dinged-up Chevy of your father's. Maybe it's easy, because maybe it was important to you. Maybe you remember not only the exterior paint job but also the color of the seats in the back, and how the vinyl stuck to your legs the first time you kissed your girlfriend, who is now your wife.

But even if you never got lucky in the back seat, even if you only borrowed that car one time, remember the car anyway. Because even if that Chevy doesn't seem like it affected who you are, you never know when the information might be used to determine . . . who you are.


<             4

© 2007 The Washington Post Company