Social forgetting: Forgetting with others

While memory is motivated by individual goals such as maintaining a positive identity, it is also motivated by social goals such as promoting group cohesion, enhancing relationships, negotiating the meaning of shared experiences, and planning joint action or projects (Alea & Bluck, 2003; Barnier, et al., 2008). For instance, consider the following excerpts from interviews with two long-married couples who we asked (both individually and jointly) to describe their autobiographical memories and their remembering practices. One couple, married for 35 years, remembered together in a genuinely shared way, dynamically constructing the past, and often speaking directly to each other rather than to the interviewers. In his individual interview, the husband described the role of remembering in their relationship:

Interviewer: How often do you talk about the past together with [wife]?

Husband: A lot. We’re big talkers. That has always been a big point of our lives, still is!

In contrast, another couple, who had recently experienced marital difficulties, did not seem to jointly remember in an efficient manner. The wife, in her individual interview, described how recent difficulties in their relationship had resulted in less day-to-day reminiscing with her husband:

Interviewer. Do you tend to reminisce together?

Wife. Not as much as we used to.

Interviewer. OK, so it’s kind of changed you think.

Wife. Yeah I do. Yeah there were some circumstances that changed it, a couple of years ago, which were really not, not happy for me, and not happy for him.

Insights from these interviews support our view that studying social influences on remembering and forgetting is a natural extension of the functional approach to autobiographical memory.

We are likely to discuss a whole range of events with others: recent and distant, significant and mundane, shared and unshared. However, just as individual autobiographical memory is selective and goal-directed, social memory is also likely to be selective, depending on the norms and values of the group that might prioritize certain items for retrieval and others for forgetting.The social context might also shape what is remembered and what is forgotten more subtly, by dictating the appropriate style and contents of recall, the social dynamics of who speaks when and whose recollections are given the most weight, and the purpose of remembering (Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). According to Schudson (1995, p. 360), people remember “collectively, publicly and interactively”, in the sense that remembering occurs for a particular audience and with input from that audience. Listeners’ responses can guide what is recalled during conversation (Pasupathi, 2001), and recalling selectively in a social context can shape subsequent individual memory (Tversky & Marsh, 2000). Based on these ideas, autobiographical memory has been labelled ’’relational” (Campbell, 2003). It originates with an individual’s experience of an event but is maintained, shaped, and elaborated through interaction with others (Hayne & MacDonald, 2003), as well as through individual identity goals.

In terms of forgetting, the selective nature of social remembering suggests that information that conflicts not just with individual goals, but also with social goals, is unlikely to be recalled during conversation. Fivush (2004) described “silencing”, the self- or other-censorship that can occur when recalling the past with others. She argued that this silencing during social interaction can cause subsequent forgetting of material that was not mentioned during the conversation (Fivush, 2004). Thus, social influence may cause forgetting, particularly of memories that conflict with the group’s goals. An alternative (but not conflicting) view is that social influence may reduce forgetting by providing social support for memory, and we elaborate further on this later in the chapter. We do not focus on social influences on misremembering, which have been extensively studied and are covered in detail elsewhere (see Loftus, 2005 for a review).

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