If a friend is
someone who laughs at our stories, then a good friend is one who enjoys them
even the second time around. But anyone who gasps with delight on hearing a
story for the third time is faking it. Or, it’s a relative: some poor nephew
Will or aunt Emily, sitting captive at the holiday table, being polite, perhaps
covering a shudder of dread that life is caught in some endless loop where the
punch lines never change.
It is not an
entirely irrational fear, either, according to new research published in the
journal Psychological Science.
people of all ages, not just elderly people, say, ‘Stop me if I’ve told you
this before,’ ” said Nigel Gopie, a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman
Research Institute, in Toronto,
who has a paper in the current issue of the journal on these memory lapses.
“We often have
a hard time remembering who we told things to, and clearly it starts early.”
In their long
study of memory, psychologists have made important distinctions between the
short-term and long-term varieties. They have documented crucial differences
between explicit memories, like for faces and vocabulary, and the implicit
kind, like for driving skills. They have published hundreds of studies on
autobiographical memory, false memories and so-called source memory — the
ability to recall where a fact was learned, whether from the radio or a book,
from a work colleague or the neighborhood gossip.
Yet they have
paid little, if any, attention to what Dr. Gopie and his co-author, Colin M.
MacLeod of the University of Waterloo, in Ontario,
call destination memory: about whose ears information has landed on. While the
source of remembered information can be crucially important (Did I read that in The Onion or the daily newspaper?), so
is its destination. Our stories, our jokes, our gossip form an important part
of our social identity, psychologists say. Repeating oneself is not only
embarrassing; it can be damaging, for diplomats, liars or anyone else trying to
guard secrets, personal or professional.
“I think people
simply get a lot more practice monitoring the sources of information, asking
themselves and others, ‘Where is that from?’ ” said Morris Moscovitch, a
psychologist at the University
of Toronto. “Whereas,
it’s rare we get any feedback about” whom we told.
finding by Dr. Gopie and Dr. MacLeod — that destination memory is relatively
weak — helps explain several embarrassing, and annoying, kinds of social
interaction. In one experiment, they had 60 University of Waterloo students
associate 50 random facts (a shrimp’s heart is in its head; 8 percent of men are
color blind) with the faces of 50 famous people, like Madonna, Wayne Gretzky and Oprah Winfrey. Half of the students
“told” each fact to one of the faces, reading it aloud when the celebrity’s
picture appeared on a computer screen. The other half read each fact silently
and saw a different celebrity moments afterward.
then took a memory test. They chose from face-fact pairs: those which they
remembered from learning a fact, and those they remembered from reading facts
out loud in the first phase of the study. The students who simulated telling the
facts did 16 percent worse on the test than the students who were fed the facts
while seeing celebrity faces. The study authors concluded that outgoing
information “was less integrated with its environmental context — i.e., the
person — than was incoming information.”
sense, psychologists say, given what is known about attention: namely, that it
is finite. A person who is conveying information, even trivial facts, will
devote some mental resources to monitoring what is being said. Self-absorption
is also a factor. In another study, Dr. Gopie and Dr. MacLeod repeated the
famous-face exercise, with one big difference. This time the facts that the
students simulated telling to celebrities were personal (“My zodiac sign is
Pisces”). The result was their destination memory worsened significantly.
situation may be reversed entirely for highly emotional personal information,”
like devastating personal anxieties, Dr. Gopie said. “That is, that people are
in those cases very aware of whom they told. We just don’t know that yet.”
suggest nonetheless that some of people’s most intricate, richly detailed
stories — the most self-distracting to tell — are at high risk for being met
with rolled eyes that say, “Been there, heard all that.”
The tendency to
blank on who-I-told-what may in fact reflect the workings of a healthy memory.
Psychologists have found evidence that when people reset a password or a new
phone number for an old friend, their brain actively suppresses the out-of-date
digits. The old numbers are a competing memory, and potentially confounding.
stories aren’t always embarrassing or socially redundant, either. If they are
repeated often enough, they become ritual, or, over time, oral history, Dr.
Gobie suggests. Still, it is telling that people who have the most invested in
who hears what — salesmen, lobbyists — often remind themselves whom they are
addressing: “Have I told you, Gail, about the special price we have on laser
printers?” That may be sucking up, but it may also be a way of keeping tabs on
where the information is going.
precisely what the two researchers found in the final experiment reported in
their paper. Saying the recipient’s name (“Oprah Winfrey, the United States
Postal Service handles 40 percent of the world’s mail volume!”) increased the
accuracy of their destination memory.
that if destination memory proves significantly weaker in further studies, the
next step will be to find out when the risks of such lapses are highest and in
whom. An improved understanding of destination memory could help doctors detect
age-related memory problems earlier, for instance. It may also be relevant to
some models of how memory works.
None of which
will bail out the holiday raconteur, caught short in the middle of telling a
rerun story. Unless he or she can reshape that tale on the fly, and pass it off
as oral history.