Saturday, July 23, 2011

Internet changes how we remember

A recent study published last week tried to show that Internet changes the way we memorize. I do not know why this did not get more attention, because I find that incredibly important. This might be biased by the fact that I have a terrible memory and that Google comes in handy, when, for instance, I need numbers to make a point. The main point of the paper is that
[W]hen people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it 

The interesting general process at work is transactive memory. Usually, this has been studied in couples. For instance, there is a nice study from Wegner et al.(1991) which looked at dating vs. non-dating pairs and found two interesting results:

  • Dating pairs were better at memorizing things than non-dating pairss, when nothing was asked by the experimenters
  • The results were reversed when the experimenters imposed a "structure", i.e. told the members of each pair what type of information each should remember

The traditional conclusion is that couples unconsciously separate which member of the couple should remember which type of information

The last experiment of the paper had a really interesting results. Participants could save information to a folder on a computer. They were then tested to see whether they remembered more where the information was than what the information was. 50% of the participants recalled the folder where the information was stored. 23% recalled the information. 17% recalled both the information and the folder, and amazingly, only 11% recalled the information but not the folder.

Another part of the paper mentioned at the beginning is somewhat related to an earlier post where I mentioned my preference for continuous examination rather than a one-day big exam, with the French baccalaureat as an example. One experiment from the study was quite relevant. The experiment asked participants to remember answers to questions. The questions were asked, such as "An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain". The participants could then look up the answer on a computer. The treatment was that

Half the participants believed the computer would save what was typed; half believed the item would be erased.(...) 
They find that those who believed the information would be erased had a far higher rate of recall than those who thought it would be saved. The general idea for this result has been known as directed forgetting, which is the term you want to use to show-off when someone explains to you that they've learnt stuff for their exam with the objective of unlearning it when it becomes unnecessary. Interestingly, knowing that they would be tested on it did not matter for the participants:
Participants were more impacted by the cue that information would or would not be available to them later, regardless of whether they thought they would be tested on it.


I reproduce the cartoon of the earlier post...


Disclaimer: One of the co-author is an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University

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