November 21, 2015
Just as writing was thought to be the death of memory back before the Common Era, when Real Poets memorized their work, technology is now deemed to be the death of memory, because people can have information at their fingertips and don’t need to remember it anymore.
But actually, people appear to use this new ability strategically and judiciously, based on their assessment of their own memory (or metamemory, as it’s called in the psychological literature).
In this post, I want to highlight two relevant papers I heard at the Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Chicago, one about remembering information (retrospective memory), and one about remembering to do something (prospective memory).
Saving some information frees capacity to remember
The retrospective memory study is by Benjamin Storm and Sam Stone from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and it was published in 2014 in Psychological Science.
When we save information in a file on a computer, we’re more likely to forget it. But this forgetting has a function – it frees resources for remembering other information. Storm and Stone asked people to type a set of words into a file, which they then saved or did not save. Next, they were asked to memorize a second set of words, and finally, they were asked to recall the first set and the second set. If they had saved the first set, they were able to study those words again before they had to recall them.
If people had been able to save the first set of words, they were much better at remembering the second set of words – less so when they hadn’t been able to save it, and had to keep both in memory.
Next, Storm and Stone repeated the study with a twist – for half the participants, saving worked every time, for the other half, it was unreliable. The people who couldn’t rely on the first set being saved started to keep it in memory, too – so the effect of saving disappeared.
So what happened was that saving the first set of words for later study helped people use their memory more efficiently.
Whether people set reminders is determined by how they rate their own memory
Another aspect of metamemory is how confident your are in your ability to remember. In a series of two elegant studies, Sam Gilbert of University College London showed that two aspects influence whether people will set a reminder:
- how complex the task is that they need to remember
- their own confidence in their abilities (regardless of task difficulty)
People were asked to remember to do two separate tasks while performing a background task (moving numbers across a screen), one that was simple and one that was more complicated. When participants were able to set reminders (arrange the numbers to hint at what needed to be done with them), they performed well, when they were unable to do so, performance, in particular on the complex task, plummeted.
The second study involved a task that could be adjusted so that it was equally difficult for all participants. In that case, participants who had less confidence in their memory set more reminders than those who were more confident.
These studies show that memory is not automatic. People make judgements and assess tradeoffs – they harness technology (and external memory aids) to support them whenever they feel they need the support.
We need to bear this in mind when we design systems that help people remember – if they feel they don’t need these reminder systems, providing one will jar painfully with their own assessment of their abilities. Depending on how they react to such challenges to their self perception, this might lead them to be more despondent and dependent, instead of more independent.
At the moment, I am at the Annual Conference of the Psychonomic Society. Psychonomics is a conference that encompasses all aspects of psychology, in particular cognition and language. And to be there as a computer scientist / linguist / human factors specialist is hugely inspiring. I keep spotting research that has direct implications for the kind of work I do with older people, designing reminders, creating environments that help people thrive, writing messages that people can understand.
In the next few days, I will post a few impressions from the oral and poster sessions. I livetweeted 1.5 oral sessions, one on statistics and one on autobiographical memory, but haven’t talked about the posters yet.
What is so special about Psychonomics is that it’s not archival, so many people will use it to present more or less fully formed work that is being written up as a paper or is in the process of being published in a journal. Sometimes, it is like a technicolor advance table of contents, with lots of juicy research results to look forward to. I hope to share a few of them with you in the coming weeks.