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Memory in Personal and Social Contexts:

 Symposium Presented at the

2001 APA Meeting




John F. Kihlstrom

University of California, Berkeley


In the century that passed since the time of Ebbinghaus, psychologists working in the "verbal learning" tradition discovered a great deal about human memory.

Relying solely on self-reports and other behavioral measures, and mostly studying normal human subjects, by the mid-1980s we had a workable description of the architecture of human memory, and a set of principles governing remembering and forgetting. We knew about the distinction between primary (working) memory and secondary memory, and about the different forms of knowledge stored in memory; we understood the distinctions among encoding, storage, and retrieval, and we understood the role of such principles as elaboration, organization, encoding specificity, and schematic processing in regulating what is encoded and what can be retrieved.

Attention then turned to the biological underpinnings of all this. Over the last 25 years, research on brain-damaged patients, and on both patients and intact subjects using brain-imaging technologies such as PET and fMRI, has begun to shed light on what goes on in the brain when we remember and forget. Brain-imaging research has confirmed the role of the hippocampus in episodic memory, originally revealed by behavioral studies of brain-damaged patients, as well as the specialized role of the amygdala (for encoding emotional memories) and the frontal lobes (for strategic processing at encoding and retrieval).

Now that we in psychology have begun to connect memory "down" to the other biological sciences, we need to start connecting memory "up" to the other social sciences. Notice the wording here, which implies that psychology is both a biological science and a social science. Psychology studies the individual mind in action, but just as the brain is the physical basis of mind, so the individual’s mental activities take place in a context of other persons, social organizations and institutions, and culture. We need to understand these connections, as well as the biological ones, if we are to understand how the mind really works.

To some extent, the needed connections are already in place. Recall that Frederick C. Bartlett subtitled his classic book on Remembering "A study in experimental and social psychology" (emphasis added). More recently, the political controversy over recovered memories of trauma threatened to tear psychology apart. Maurice Halbwachs, a French sociologist who trained under the psychologist Henri Bergson, gave us the notion of "collective memory". George Orwell made the "memory hole" a central means of social control in 1984. Jurors deliberating a criminal trial first settle on a story, a collective representation of the facts of the case, before reaching a verdict.  The Nazi Holocaust is, now, all about memory – as were the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. In literature, the memoir has supplanted the novel as the most popular literary form – today, when you open your New York Times Book Review, you will see that three of the top 15 paperback best-sellers are by a single person, and one of these has been on the list for 171 weeks. Bill Clinton got a $10 million advance for his memoirs, Hillary Clinton $8 million for hers, and Monica’s story is already out – leading us all to wonder whether he will remember what she remembers, and how these memories will compare with what the other she remembers, what we remember, and what really happened.

Making these connections between individual and social memory isn’t going to be easy. We’re not always going to be able to select our stimulus materials arbitrarily, or with concern for solely structural features such as frequency and imagery value, and we’re not always going to be able to randomly assign subjects to conditions. Sometimes, we’re going to have to use stimulus materials that are personally relevant to our subjects, and even use different materials for different subjects. We’re not always going to be able to control encoding conditions and retention intervals. Sometimes, we’re going to have to study individuals’ memories without having independent knowledge of the events they represent. We may have to do studies in unique circumstances that can’t be replicated across laboratories. We’re going to have to broaden our definition of memory, in order to study collective memories in families, organizations, societies, and cultures. We may not always be able to do t tests.

But these sacrifices will be worthwhile, if we can find a way to loosen up while keeping our heads on straight, if we can bring ourselves to talk with colleagues in disciplines other than neuroscience, we will be able to use the theme of memory to link the biological sciences, though psychology, to the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

But first the baby steps. Although a complete understanding of memory is going to require contact with other disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, as well as rhetoric and literary studies, the first step on this journey is right within our own discipline – to connect the cognitive psychology of memory with the study of personality and social psychology. And that is what we offer you this afternoon – five talks by cognitive psychologists, all of whom are reaching out to their colleagues in personality and social psychology to study memory in personal and social contexts.

Stanley B. Klein (University of California, Santa Barbara) will review recent studies revealing dissociations between episodic and semantic personal memories in amnesic and autistic patients.

Jonathan M. Golding (University of Kentucky) will describe how interpersonal context of impression-formation or jury decision-making affect the fate of items in the "directed forgetting" paradigm.

Barbara H. Basden and David R. Basden (California State University, Fresno) will discuss the impact of group collaboration on both individual and group memory performance.

Henry L. Roediger III and Michelle L. Meade (Washington University, St. Louis) will discuss contagion and source-monitoring processes in individual memory.

Lillian Park and John F. Kihlstrom (University of California, Berkeley) will analyze interpersonal influences on the recognition of "false memories" with respect to Asch’s distinction between conformity at the level of behavior and conformity at the level of belief.

It should be noted that there are some personality and social psychologists who are reaching back toward cognition. There’s the whole industry devoted to research on emotion and memory, for example. I think in particular of Dan McAdams, who is studying life narratives; David Pillemer, who studies memory for momentous life occasions; Jeff Singer and Peter Salovey, who study the remembering self; and Mike Ross, who studies the role of self-theories in the construction and reconstruction of personal memories. These and other, similar, efforts are important, and they deserve their own symposium. Maybe next year.



What Amnesia Can Tell Us about Mental Representation of Self

Stanley B. Klein

University of California, Santa Barbara


Knowledge of one's traits and personal recollections of specific events involving those traits are assumed to reflect the operations of two distinct, neurally dissociable types of memory: semantic personal memory and episodic personal memory. In this symposium I offer support for this conclusion by examining the episodic and semantic self-knowledge of individuals who as a result of brain injury (amnesics) or developmental disorder (autism) show a dissociation between these two forms of self-knowledge. Specifically, both amnesic and autistic individuals are shown to have accurate knowledge of their traits despite severely limited access to the personal experiences on which that knowledge presumably was based. I suggest that neuropsychological evidence is a fertile, yet underutilized, domain in which to test theories of interest to personality and social psychologists.



Intentional Forgetting in a Social Context

Jonathan M. Golding

University of Kentucky


One of the most important features of memory is its adaptive nature. For example, because we cannot process all the information we encounter we must select out relatively small amounts of relevant information at the exclusion of irrelevant information. That is, we must use our memory to intentionally forget some information; thus forgetting is not always "bad," but can be a positive, adaptive strategy. Selecting information to forget or disregard is often aided by explicit cues (e.g., "forget what I just told you," "disregard that last piece of testimony"). Research initially conducted by cognitive psychologists showed that these "forget" cues typically lead to a reduction in proactive interference; poorer memory for to-be-forgotten (TBF) information and better memory for to-be-remembered (TBR) information compared to control groups. This pattern of results is commonly referred to as "intentional forgetting." The cognitive mechanisms proposed to account for intentional forgetting have included differences in encoding the TBF and TBR information, and retrieval inhibition of TBF information. More recently, intentional forgetting has been examined by social psychologists. However the impact of forget cues in social psychology research has often been different than those just described. For example, in studies presenting information in an impression-formation or legal context individuals continue to process the TBF information. In addition, the mechanisms proposed by social psychologists to account for their results generally steer clear of those proposed by cognitive psychologists. Despite these differences, it will be argued that there is room for agreement between cognitive and social psychology with regard to intentional forgetting. Moreover, each side can gain from understanding the other’s perspective. By reviewing previous intentional forgetting research in cognitive psychology and social psychology (including the author’s own research that incorporates both perspectives), this presentation will highlight common ground in intentional forgetting research across these two research domains.



Memory Distortion during Collaborative Remembering

Barbara H. Basden and David R. Basden

California State University, Fresno


Previous results in our laboratory (e.g., Basden, Basden, Bryner, & Thomas, 1997) have shown that collaborative groups (whose members hear and see the recall of others) tend to produce more intrusions to recall than do nominal groups (whose members recall alone). Because false memory is more likely to be observed when subjects take turns during recall (Basden et al., 1997) than when recall order is unconstrained (Weldon & Bellinger, 1997), we have hypothesized that group pressure to contribute to output underlies greater false memory in collaborative groups. In the present research, subjects viewed everyday scenes that have been shown to promote social contagion (Roediger, Mead, and Bergman, 2000). After viewing the scenes, the subjects in collaborative groups took turns recalling the objects in the scenes and subjects in nominal groups recalled individually. Group pressure was operationalized by having group members perform a task that either increased or decreased group cohesiveness. Collaborative group members listed either similarities or differences among the members before studying the scenes. After briefly studying each of the four scenes, subjects completed word fragments corresponding to some of the objects present in the scene and to a nonpresented object that would be expected in the scene. For example, for the bathroom scene, a word fragment for the nonpresented object toothbrush was presented. On the subsequent recall test, cohesive groups were expected to show greater false memory than noncohesive groups and in turn the noncohesive groups were expected to show greater false memory than nominal groups. The presumption is that false memories of real-life events are more likely to occur in group therapy sessions in which members identify with one another and are pressured to relate their experiences to the group.



Social Contagion of Memory

Henry L. Roediger, III and Michelle L. Meade

Washington University, St. Louis


People often recall information in groups, either during committee meetings, informal conversations, reminiscing among families, and on other social occasions. Our work is concerned with whether and how people develop collective false memories from the erroneous reports of one individual in the group the social contagion of memory. The paradigm we developed to study the social contagion of memory is a blend of S. Asch's conformity procedure and the misinformation paradigm developed by E. F. Loftus. Briefly, two people (one subject, one confederate) view scenes together and then recall items from the scenes collaboratively, taking turns in responding. The experimental confederate occasionally makes errors in recalling the scenes. During a final test at the end of the experimental session, subjects are told to respond accurately only with information they are sure was in the original slides. Nonetheless, subjects often report the misinformation supplied by the confederate as having occurred in the original scenes. We have examined the effects of warning, the types of items suggested, and the effect of additional group pressure on social contagion. Briefly, warning subjects just before the final test that the confederate has made errors reduces, but does not eliminate, the social contagion effect. The effect is also greater for items that are more typical rather than less typical of the viewed scenes. Finally, social contagion is enhanced from increasing the number of subjects who erroneously report the wrong detail on the collaborative test. The social contagion effect differs in important ways from its kindred phenomena that inspired our research. Unlike conformity in the Asch procedure, subjects on the final test in the social contagion paradigm seem to privately

believe their erroneous reports. Similarly, the contagion effect persists on a source monitoring test, unlike the case of the misinformation effect.


Social Influences on False Memory

Lillian Park & John F. Kihlstrom

University of California, Berkeley


The false memory paradigm as revived by Roediger & McDermott (1995) was used in two studies that examined the role that social influence plays in the creation and retrieval of memories. In the spirit of Asch’s classic experiments on conformity, we predicted that people would incorporate the details of other people’s memories into their own memories, even when the information is false, so long as it is plausible. However, since they did not originally experience those details, the phenomenological experience associated with these memories should be different than that of their own personal veridical memories. Experiment 1 examined spontaneous social influence on individual memory. Study lists consisting of 12 semantically related words were read aloud to subjects seated in a classroom setting. After presentation of each list, the subjects individually wrote down the words they remembered. Then they were asked to raise their hands if they had recalled particular items. In the experimental condition, these included old items hat had actually been read to them, critical lures that were strongly related to list items, related lures that were more weakly related, and semantically unrelated lures. In a control condition, the subjects were not asked about the strongly related critical lures at all. Most subjects correctly endorsed the old items, and correctly rejected the weakly related and unrelated lures. However, a small percentage of subjects in the experimental condition falsely endorsed the critical lures. On a subsequent recognition test, subjects were more likely to identify the critical lures as being old if they had been exposed to other people’s false recall of that item. Experiment 2 involved a single subject and a confederate run simultaneously at facing computer terminals. Following presentation of each list of semantically related words, subjects and confederates read their recall aloud. On half the trials, confederates read a lure that was weakly related to the list items. After 12 study-test cycles, the subjects made recognition judgments and rated their recollective experiences according to a three-category system (Remember, Know, and Feel). There was a higher false alarm rate for related lures that had been read aloud by the confederate, compared to related lures that had not been read aloud. While correct recognition of old, studied items was associated with experiences of "remembering", however, false recognition of related lures was associated with "knowing" or "feeling". These studies indicate that performance of individual subjects in the false-memory paradigm can be influenced by that of other subjects. Under conditions of uncertainty, people look to others for help in remembering the past, just as they do for help in perceiving the present. However, the memories reconstructed from social influence do not appear to be of the same quality as those reconstructed from personal experience. In Asch’s terms, these differences suggest that conformity in the false-memory paradigm is more at the level of behavior than at the level of beliefs.


This page last revised: 04/08/10 02:58:37 PM.