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The Human Ecology of Memory: Social Memory

Memory is central to personality, but human beings are social beings, and individuals live in a world consisting of other persons, groups, organizations, institutions, and societies.  Therefore, in extending our view of memory beyond the strict confines of cognitive psychology, we have to consider social psychology, and other social sciences (besides psychology) as well.

The Interpersonal Principle

The social psychology of memory might be summarized as follows:

Memory is shaped by the interpersonal context in which it is encoded and retrieved, 

while it reciprocally shapes that situation.

As social psychologists, we have to distinguish between the informational function of memory -- how memories represent our knowledge of the past -- and the communicative function of memory -- how individuals use memory to establish, maintain, and manage their relations with other people.

Social Influences on Memory

Social psychology is conventionally defined as the study of social influence -- that is, how the presence and activities of other people influence the individual's experience, thought, and action.  This is quite wrong: social psychology is no more the study of social influence than perception is the study of stimulus influence.  Social psychology is actually concerned with the (bidirectional) relationship between the individual's mental structures and processes and interpersonal structures and processes lying in the social world outside the individual.  

Nonetheless, the conventional definition has guided much of experimental social psychology, and some of this research has focused on memory.

The Post-Event Misinformation Effect

Among the most popular of these paradigms is the post-event misinformation effect, a paradigm pioneered by Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues, discussed earlier in the lectures on retrieval and reconstruction.  The leading questions that generate the effect are a kind of suggestive influence on the part of the interrogator -- hence a social influence on memory.  The post-event misinformation effect is discussed further in the lectures on Retrieval and Reconstruction.

Collaborative Memory

Most cognitive psychologists focus on the memories of an individual subject, but it is also possible to ask a group of subjects to collaborate and produce a common memory.  Early research focused on the possibility of social loafing, in which individuals recalling in groups contribute less, individually, than they would if they were working alone.  But it also appears that group collaboration improves recognition memory by "pruning" errors from individual memories.

See reviews by Rajaram, who has also done the most thorough work on this subject.

Flashbulb Memories Redux

We may get some sense of the relation between individual and collective memory by returning to the phenomenon of flashbulb memories.  We have already seen that flashbulb quality may be deceiving: FBMs may be vivid, and richly detailed, but they are not necessarily veridical.  Far from being the product of some kind of "Now Print!" mechanism, they appear to result from frequent rehearsal -- most likely in the course of sharing the recollections with others.  But nobody cares where you learned about Columbus discovering America.  But people are interested in where you were when you heard about the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger disaster, or the terror attacks of 9/11.  The important point about flashbulb memories is that they are for events that have emotional significance for the people in society.  According to Neisser, one function of a flashbulb memory is to link private, personal memory with public, collective memory, autobiography with history.  My flashbulb memories represent "where I was" when some critical public event took place.  

Here's a good example.  Most people have a flashbulb memory for the terror attacks of 9/11 -- where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when they first heard about the attacks.  The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducts an annual public-opinion survey, one question of which asks respondents to describe the most significant event in their personal lives during the previous year (press release 09/05/2002).  Usually, that question elicits a hodgepodge of marriages, births, and deaths.  But when the survey was conducted in 2002, covering 2001, an enormously large number of people listed the 9/11 attacks.  Fully 97% of respondents could remember exactly where they were or what they were doing the moment they heard of the attacks, and 38% of those surveyed cited the 9/11 attacks as "the biggest life event of the past year".  This was a public event, of considerable historical significance.  But it was also a personal event, recorded as a flashbulb memory.  In this way, flashbulb memories connect the personal with the public.

I think this formulation is largely correct -- with the proviso that many people also have flashbulb memories for very private experiences, which they are unlikely to have shared with others.  For example, the traumatic memories that feature so prominently in post-traumatic stress disorder may have "flashbulb" qualities.  So may many pleasant memories, like one's sexual initiation (assuming that it was, in fact, pleasant!).

Unfortunately, my lab's attempt to document this linkage between personal memory and history failed.  But it was a good idea, and this is my website, so I'm going to tell you about it.

The study by Mullane Swar (2002) described earlier was based on data originally collected in 1988.  In another part of that study, we had collected people's memories for personal and historical events for the time period surrounding January 28, 1986, which was when the Challenger disaster happened.

RecallChallenger.JPG (31226 bytes)Partly, we were interested in whether subjects would spontaneously recall the Challenger disaster, as either a personal memory or a historical event.  Only about 30% of the subjects spontaneously listed the Challenger disaster as a historical event, which is interesting, because virtually all of these subjects had a flashbulb memory for the disaster.  A minority of subjects listed the Challenger disaster as a personal memory, but only following the reminder.  The flashbulb memory is, of course, their personal recollection of the historical event.


ChallengerEffect.JPG (38259 bytes)Partly, we were interested in whether the Challenger disaster would serve as a retrieval cue, stimulating the recall of other events, whether personal or historical, from the same time period.  In fact, it did not.  If anything, there was a reverse effect, in that being reminded of the Challenger disaster reduced the number of personal memories recalled by the subjects.  Perhaps, once they were reminded, the Challenger disaster overwhelmed their other personal recollections.  


OK, so the experiment didn't work out quite as planned.  But it was still a good idea.  It seems very likely that, as Neisser proposed, flashbulb memories are benchmarks, in which personal memory links to public history.  But it also is clear that flashbulb memories can serve as sources of narrative or social exchange.  For proof, at the next party you go to, ask the other guests to remember where they were when they first heard about 9/11.  

Having dealt with flashbulb memories three times -- as emotional memories, as personal memories, and as social memories, we may now offer some conclusions about them.

Collective Memory

As psychologists, our major interest is in the memories of individuals -- what individual people remember from the past, and the operating principles of the mental faculty of memory.  Memories can also be represented at the biological level of analysis -- as engrams, existing in the brain either as a discrete cluster of neurons or as a pattern of neural activation across the entire cerebral cortex.  And memory can also be represented at the sociocultural level of analysis, as a product of group activity.  Maurice Halbwachs, a sociologist, defined collective memory as those memories that are shared by members of a group by virtue of the fact that they are members of that group.  This raises the question of how far we can generalize the concept of memory from the psychological to the sociocultural level of analysis.  In just what sense can groups have memories, the way individuals assuredly do.  

There are, in fact, a number of analogues between individual and social memory.

We're not sociologists here, but psychology does reach out to the other social sciences through personality and social psychology, just as the "cognitive hexagon" that defines cognitive science includes a point representing anthropology and the other social sciences.  Accordingly, it seems appropriate to consider, however briefly, some of the ways in which memory has a social component that extends beyond the individual mind.

From a sociological point of view, societies and cultures have memories, much like individual people do.  These socially shared representations of the past transcend individual recollections.

Collective memory can take a variety of forms:

So, just as we need t know about the nature of memory as an individual mental function, we also need to know about collective memory as a sociocultural function.

And we also need to know something about the relations between individual and collective memory.  George Orwell, in 1984, invented the concept of the memory hole, the means for destroying documents rather than preserving them.  As documents were dropped down the memory hole, the official version of history was changed, and all representations of the past had to be altered accordingly.  The assumption (not necessarily Orwell's -- beware the authorial fallacy!) is that individual memory is also malleable, and personal recollections will be brought in line with the official story.  But this isn't necessarily the case, and individual memory can resist, and contradict, collective memory.  In fact, James Wertsch, a psychologist at Washington University (St. Louis), found that, in the former Soviet Union, individuals held two sets of memories in parallel: the "official story", as portrayed by the government; and their own memories, derived from direct and vicarious experience.  

There's more to be said about collective memory, but that's the topic for a different course, on Social Cognition (which I also teach).  For now, the we should just say that memory is not just for cognitive psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, anymore.  Memory is also something that personality, social, and clinical psychologists, and sociologists and anthropologists, think about too.  A complete understanding of memory requires contributions from these and other fields.  But psychology has made a beginning, understanding memory as a faculty of the mind, and its biological substrates in the brain. 

Levels of Memory Representation

The point of all of this is that memory can be analyzed at several different levels.


This page last modified 05/27/2014.