The Lost Sock Theory.

Like many engineers I have trouble with throwing out things that are potentially useful. I’ve got several containers stuffed with computer parts, a few more laden with electronics bits and a shed full of other miscellanea that I have a hard time writing off as completely useless. Thankfully at least once a year I’ll do a clean out of the entire house and any of the real trash will get tossed at that point, meaning that most of the stuff I have actually has some potential to be used. My hoarder tendencies have also led me down the rather unexpected path of self discovery and brought insight into some of our societal norms.

One of the things I find hard to let go of are my socks. Like anyone I’d do a wash only to find myself one or two socks short, leaving me with at best mismatched pairs and at worst socks that were never to be used again. For the longest time I can remember just quietly cursing under my breath and tossing them into a pile, never to be looked at again. Then one day I accidentally chucked that entire pile of socks into my regular wash and interestingly enough I came out of it with many more pairs of socks than what came in. It was then I realised that for the most part my missing socks weren’t missing at all, they had either been misplaced or a complete pair had been sitting in the lost socks pile for however long. From then on I have continued the ritual of rifling through my lost sock drawer every time I find myself coming up short and around 75% of the time I find myself with a completed pair once again.

This experience got me thinking about how we as a society come to accept certain inevitabilities simply because the are accepted by everyone. It’s a well known “fact” that washing machines somehow eat a sock every so often and with that idea firmly implanted in your head you don’t think twice about it when you come up short in the wash every week. Of course most people are rational beings and if you really push the topic they’ll eventually cave and say that they’ve probably misplaced them somewhere but rarely do I hear of anyone trying to figure out a solution to it.

I hadn’t really considered the idea passed “Hey I can find most of my lost socks if I just keep them all” until I watched TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz titled On Being Wrong:

At its heart the idea that a washing machine can magically disappear socks is wrong, they’re simply not designed that way. Realistically the blame lies with us for having misplaced them but admitting that to ourselves is much harder than laying blame on some external, uncontrollable factor. We’re much more comfortable believing we’re right about the washing machines working against us than taking that leap into thinking we’re wrong and working out a solution. Taking this one step further its easy to see when people become trapped in these notions that they believe are right when objectively they’re completely wrong and there’s usually a path to follow to remedy it.

Just like my Straight Line Theory before it the Lost Sock Theory came about not through hours of philosophical study but just a realisation through going about my normal, everyday life. Perhaps its my engineering bent that causes me to seek out problems like this and work on their solutions as I often find myself seeing analogies in everyday life to philosophical ideals. Indeed it is my hope that in sharing these ideas with you that you too will embark on a similar path of self discovery, or at least find some of those socks that have gone walk about.

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