What can be more embarrassing than to launch into telling an interesting story only to be told by the listener, “you have told me that already”. In a study that addressed this problem, researchers found that our brains are better at recalling the source of information than remembering to whom we gave it (destination memory).
Most of us seem to be far better at remembering who’s told us what compared with to whom we’ve told what. Psychologists characterise this as a distinction between “source memory” and “destination memory”, and according to Nigel Gopie, a post-doctoral fellow with the Rotman Research Institute and his co-author Dr. Colin MacLeod, of the University of Waterloo, the latter form is surprisingly under-researched.
They have just published a new study suggesting that we are poor at remembering to whom we said what because of the self-focus associated with disclosing information, rather than receiving it. This self-focus, they argue, disrupts the memory processes that would otherwise associate what was said and to whom.
In an initial experiment, 60 undergraduates were split into two groups. In the source memory group, participants looked at 50 faces of famous people on a computer screen and a random fact appeared (shrimps’ hearts are located in their heads, for example) after each face was viewed. In the destination memory group, participants told a fact to each celebrity face that appeared on their computer screen.
In a later memory test, the students chose from face-fact pairs: those they remembered from learning a fact (source memory) and those they remembered from telling someone a fact (destination memory). The latter group, students who simulated telling the facts, did 16 per cent worse on the test than the students who were fed the facts while seeing the well-known faces.
In a related study, Dr. Gopie and Dr. MacLeod increased and decreased self-focus, obtaining support for a theoretical framework that explains relatively poor destination memory performance as being the result of focusing attention on oneself and on the processes required to transmit information.
The good news is that their finding points to a remedy. Fed up with hearing “you told me that already!”, then try focusing less on yourself and more on your listener the next time you share an anecdote.
Gopie N. & Macleod C.M. (2009). Destination memory: stop me if I’ve told you this before. Psychological science, 20, 1492 – 1499.