Studying social forgetting

Social aspects of remembering and forgetting have received a great deal of attention from psychologists, at least since Bartlett’s (1932) Remembering. In the developmental domain, researchers have focused on how parents talk to children about the past and teach them the narrative structures of autobiographical remembering (Reese & Fivush, 2008). In the forensic domain, researchers have examined how eyewitnesses influence each others’ memories, and whether interactions between witnesses can distort later testimony (Paterson & Kemp, 2006). In the organizational domain, researchers have focused on how groups coordinate performance to enhance workplace productivity (Brandon & Hollingshead, 2004). In contrast, cognitive psychology' has traditionally been more individualistic in its approach to studying memory, and it is only relatively recently that cognitive, experimental paradigms have been developed to examine how remembering with others is different to remembering alone. Below, we review two major experimental paradigms that have been used to study social forgetting in the laboratory. The first is socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting, which is an extension of the RIF paradigm into a social context (Cue, Koppel, & Hirst, 2007). The second is collaborative recall, which was developed to directly measure how what is remembered and forgotten in a group compares to what is remembered and forgotten by the same number of individuals recalling alone (Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). These paradigms demonstrate the ways in which individual and social processes combine to influence both remembering and forgetting.

Socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting (SS-RIF)

The RIF paradigm (described in the previous section) has been extended to examine forgetting in a social context. This paradigm models the kind of forgetting that is the result of selective remembering in conversation with others. Imagine a politician who repeatedly directs her audience’s attention to her successful, popular policies, and avoids mentioning her unpopular policies and scandals. She might hope that this would cause her listeners to subsequently forget her misdeeds. Cue et al. (2007) argued that the selective remembering that happens in a conversation (where only information consistent with conversational goals is mentioned; Tversky & Marsh, 2000) is a form of retrieval practice that should result in forgetting of unpractised, related information.

To test this, Cue et al. (2007) replicated the standard RIF procedure of Anderson et al. (1994) but introduced a “listener” who observed the “speaker’s” retrieval practice and monitored them for either accuracy or fluency. Speakers showed RIF as expected. Most importantly, listeners showed RIF as well but only when they monitored the speaker’s accuracy, presumably because this encouraged listeners to perform the retrieval practice themselves as they observed the speaker. To examine whether SS-RIF might also operate in a natural discussion, where participants were not explicitly instructed to monitor for accuracy and where the role of speaker and listener shifted back and forth, in a second experiment Cue et al. (2007) modified the SS-RIF procedure so that the retrieval practice phase consisted of a free- flowing conversation between two participants. They found that both speaker and listener showed RIF (Cue et al., 2007).Thus, SS-RIF appears to be one plausible explanation for forgetting in social interactions, and in our lab we are currently extending this effect to autobiographical memories. This research suggests that the content of a conversation could be shaped either intentionally or unintentionally to induce forgetting of unwanted information. In this way, social interaction could lead to individual forgetting (Hirst & Manier, 2008).

More recently, SS-RIF has been extended to apply to autobiographical and emotional material as well as clinical populations. This includes people’s memories for their experience of a highly emotional and impactful event (the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York; Coman et al., 2009). Stone et al. (2013b) found SS-RIF effects for positive, neutral, and negative autobiographical memories, regardless of memory valence, extending Barnier et al.’s (2004) paradigm to social interaction. Brown et al. (2012) found that people with PTSD showed SS-RIF for combat-relevant and neutral stimuli, but showed stronger forgetting for combat-relevant stimuli (unlike effects reported above for RIF, where clinically relevant stimuli tend to be immune to forgetting). In SS-RIF, there are additional motivational effects beyond the self-relevance of the information; namely, the relationship between the individuals in the social interaction. Coman and Hirst (2015) found that SS-RIF effects only occurred for a pair of in-group members (fellow Princeton students), but not for out-group members. Similarly, Barber and Mather (2012) found SS-RIF effects for same-gender but not mixed-gender pairs. Thus, social interactions can shape memory even for personal, emotional, autobiographical material, but depends on individual characteristics as well as relationship and similarity between group members.

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