Are two heads better than one? Maybe. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise, because we all know on some level that even one “head” can be better than others in terms of memory. New research into “group memory,” or “social memory” sheds some light on how remembering together can be more or less effective. In part, it depends on the group’s “executive functioning”.
Memory research has come a long ways since the early research many of us learned in psychology classes. There is the famous Bell Laboratories research into short-term memory which resulted in the famous axiom of “7 plus or minus two” – which refers to how many “slots” we can utilize “in our head” in real-time, keeping it there to “process,” sequence, manipulate.
This is essentially considered “working memory” in the new parlance, but this early research is the basis for our (original) 7-digit telephone number. Beyond that (i.e., with the introduction of area codes) those whose limit is recalling 7 digits comfortably, learned to “chunk” the information so that 212 or 415 area codes were remembered as a unit, so as to take only slot. Essentially, this is human RAM, while other reasoning skills rely on this as part of our larger “processor.”
Now back to humans and human memory…
One of the presentations I attended at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association harkens back to basic research and focuses on a series of studies into “social memory”, looking at the extent to which memorizing and retrieving information may be impacted by the situation — specifically, if it is a group collaborative effort versus solitary memory.
The title of the presentation was particularly provocative, in this age of connectedness to devices, social networks, and smart phones:
Social Influences on Memory:
The Perils of Learning and Remembering with Others
I was prepared for some new findings about impact on attention span, or inferences about how the echo chamber of “fact” presentation among groups or in popular media might present a “peril.” Or the risks and benefits of remembering through discussion via tweeting or remembering a friend’s Facebook wall, etc. This was not the case, nor was it entirely perilous to have people learning or recalling in groups.
Suparna Rajaram, Ph.D presented a series of very rigorous studies which did find a number of situations when “social learning” was relatively ineffective compared to singular memory. One of the variables which emerged was “rehearsal,” or the repetition/re-exposure to a bit of memory which is generally seen as an important aid in initial memory, but which appears to be an important factor in retrieval as well.
These studies go beyond “state dependent learning” (which posits that it is easier to recall something when in the same frame as when the initial learning took place), and highlight how collective memory, just as individual memory skills, reflect things in groups as well as individuals, such as the level of ability to organize.
If you take 5 people and ask them to recall 5 items from a list, it is possible that they’ll each remember different things so that the cumulative result is better than any one individual. On the other hand, as though who play Boggle know well, you can also have a situation where the same few words are recalled by everyone, “canceling out” the result of a longer list.
A big factor appears to be how the task is presented, mediated, and organized, with effective groups able to harness the collective power, and disorganized groups doing worse on recall than single individuals. And so group memory, like individual memory, can be seen as one component of “executive functioning” with the effective use of “working memory” as well as the organizing and sequencing of the task a part of the overall task.
How good does our memory need to be, individually? How much can we rely on others to effectively help us recall learned materials?