It’s often said that strategy seldom survives contact with the enemy, and I wrote recently about a study examining the impact of group contact on our stories. The study found that when we begin to share stories with a group, they tend to synchronize and become one after a while, even if we all start from different points.
A second study, this time from the University of Liverpool and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), reveals the impact of group behavior on our ability to recall information.
The study found that when we try to remember things as part of a wider group, our recall levels are significantly lower than when we try to do so alone. Interestingly, though, this only applies to the group as a whole, because the individuals within the group actually seem to remember more.
This has a number of possible implications for us at work. For instance, job interviews are typically conducted with a panel whereby the panel need to collectively recall the answers of the candidate before making a choice.
The study uncovered something known as collaborative inhibition whereby the collective memory of a group is less than the sum of its parts. This occurs because each member tends to disrupt the retrieval strategies of the other members.
“Collaborative group members develop their own preferred retrieval strategies for recalling information. For example, Person A may prefer to recall information in the order it was learned but Person B may prefer to recall it in the reverse order. Importantly, recall is greatest when people can use their own preferred retrieval strategies,” the authors say.
“During collaboration, members hear each other recall information using competing retrieval strategies and their preferred strategies become disrupted. This results in each group member underperforming and the group as a whole suffers. Individuals who work alone can use their preferred retrieval strategies without this disruption so recall more,” they continue.
What Helps Us to Remember
So what can help us to better remember information? The study suggests that group size is a factor, with larger groups tending to inhibit our memory capabilities much more than smaller groups. Familiarity with the other group members was also a key factor, with less familiar groups performing worse than more familiar ones.
The authors suggest this is largely down to the level of diversity in retrieval strategies, with smaller groups typically containing fewer strategies so offering less opportunity for our own to be disrupted. Likewise, the more familiar we are with other members, the more likely we are to deploy complementary strategies rather than competing ones.
What is perhaps most interesting, however, is that working in a group environment did boost our recall when tested individually later on.
“We believe that this occurs as working in a group means people are re-exposed to things they may have forgotten and this boosts their memory later on. One of the important consequences of this is that it suggests getting people to work together to remember something (i.e., students revising together) is beneficial for individual learning,” the authors suggest.