Tuesday 30 January 2018

Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories

Today's post is from Celia Harris, who works in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. In this post she summarises research from her paper "Social Contagion of Autobiographical Memories" recently published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

I’m interested in memory, and particularly the social and functional aspects. What do we use memory for in our day-to-day lives, and in our social relationships? And how does this inform our models and theories of memory, which have typically been developed by focusing on individuals learning word lists in a lab?

One of the aims of my research has been to counter the negative emphasis on the power of social interaction to distort memory. My research suggests that social influence does indeed shape and alter memories in interesting ways, consistent with our goals of agreeing with others and being informed by them. However I argue that we shouldn’t necessarily see these influences as “distortion” and individual memory as “pure”, but rather we should understand these social influences on memory in their ecological context as serving goals for individuals and groups.

In a recent paper, along with my co-authors, I reported a study where we applied the “social contagion of memory” paradigm to autobiographical memories. Social contagion – adopting a ‘disease’ metaphor for social influence – is an experimental method that has been developed to study social influences on memory in the laboratory. In the original paradigm, participants view a set of household scenes and recall them with a confederate (acting as a fellow participant but actually working for the experimenter). During the course of their joint recall, this confederate mentions specific false items that never appeared. The social contagion effect is demonstrated when participants later recall these false items as if they had actually seen them.

We were interested in whether we would find similar effects when people recalled and discussed personally experienced events instead of more artificial stimuli. In our autobiographical adaptation, participants described four specific events to a confederate, who also described four (scripted) events. Participants and confederates summarised each other’s memories, and the confederate inserted two specific new details when they summarised participant’s memories. We tested whether participants later included these details when recalling alone, thus showing evidence of social contagion.

We found that social contagion did occur for autobiographical memories – around 30% of participants picked up at least one of the critical new details suggested to them by the confederates. We also found that most participants picked up other details from the confederate’s scripts of the events and included them in their own recall – these details were never suggested to the participants, but were mentioned when the confederate recounted their own (scripted) experiences.

These results were interesting because they demonstrate that a controlled laboratory procedure like social contagion can be successfully extended to complex autobiographical material. Our results were consistent with previous studies despite a quite radical change in the procedure, suggesting that social contagion does apply to more real-world remembering.

What was also striking was the high rates of unsuggested contagion, where participants picked up details from the confederates’ script and later recalled them within their own memories. This suggests that measuring social influence doesn’t depend on elaborate procedures that trick participants into adopting false details. It seemed quite natural for participants to incorporate details from confederates into their own recall. We have no way of knowing whether these were “false” or “true” details, and it is likely that many of them were accurate details that confederates reminded participants of as they described similar events.

But overall, our findings suggest that all memories are shaped by social influence – even in quite shallow and superficial interactions – and that there isn’t a clear line between “false memories” and “true memories”. Perhaps because sharing memories with others is social glue, talking to others about the past shapes the way we recall it.

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