Jul 10

A couple weeks back, I answered a question about lost socks in my Q&A Column for the WSJ. Many people were very interested in this topic and had a lot to say on the fate of lost socks. Below are the original question and some of the insights provided by my readers:

Dear Dan,

I have a question that has been bothering me for a very long time: Why is it that socks always get lost in the laundry?

—Jamie

This is a deep and important question, and I actually looked into it some time ago with one of my Israeli friends, Ornit Raz.

We discovered that belief in the supernatural is very strong when it comes to the disappearance of socks. Otherwise reasonable people, who think that they have a strong grasp of the forces of nature, feel at a loss when it comes to this universal mystery, and it deeply shakes their faith in the laws of physics.

We also found one mechanism that can explain this mystery—the overcounting of missing socks. You have many socks, and if you see one of them and don’t immediately find its partner, you say, “Oh! A sock has been lost!” You remember that a sock is missing, but you do not exactly recall its type or color.

Later on, you see the matching sock, but you don’t remember that it forms a pair with the first sock, and you say to yourself (again): “Another sock is missing. Where is its partner? I can’t believe so many socks go missing.”

So we often count as lost each sock in a pair—even though neither is really lost. At the end of the day, the mystery is not due to the suspension of the law of physics but to the much larger puzzle of how our memory works (or doesn’t work). Yet I still feel that, at the back of my laundry machine, there may be a black hole that is suitable just for socks.

Reader Responses:

I have proof that your Missing Sock Theory is not true. I have been keeping a special place for all my lone socks for at least 13 years. (I know, a bit extreme – the downside of hope.)

And each time another sock comes out of the dryer without a mate I run to all my other lonely socks to see if I have a pair. Most of the time I do not, or else I do find that other mate.

But I have had a permanent amount of lone socks with no change for a long time. I’m thoroughly convinced that if I throw them out all their mates will suddenly appear, but I will have forgotten I threw them out and then I would be at Square One again: a bunch of socks without mates.

Full of hope,

-Dede

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I do not often correct famous writers, however the question of missing socks forced me to respond. Socks do not go missing— rather they multiply in the dark, moist and warm atmosphere of the dryer. Just saying.

-Cathy G

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Your response to Jamie in WSJ issue of June 22-23 regarding missing laundered socks was humorous, but less than helpful. This mystery was solved for me when I had a repairman in to repair my washing machine. When he took it apart we discovered several (single) socks that had floated up and over the rotating drum and had become lodged between it and the outer wall of the washer. I suspect that this is the mechanism that causes most socks to become separated from their mates – not some mysterious black hole or a loss of memory that prevents me from checking the sock drawer and discovering that I already had the sock’s missing mate on hand.

-Babette

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While your explanation to the missing socks phenomenon was certainly informative, I always understood that socks are the larval stage of wire hangers.

-Ed

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I enjoy your weekly WSJ column, and I believe I’ve read most of your book (I’m bad at keeping track of books I’ve read). Anyhow, I’m writing about your hypothesis about the lost socks. I thought the same as you a year or so back, and decided to test it. Each time the laundry produced an orphaned sock, I put it in a separate box. To date, the box houses twelve orphaned socks, and no sock has been reunited with its partner. Sadly, I’m slowly losing confidence this circumstance will change.

I hope my current experiment with plastic food containers and lids yields more beneficial results (only half joking).

Thanks for the good writing.

-Sam