You told me that already! Why we’re so poor at remembering to whom we told what

It can take some bottle to share an anecdote, so it’s somewhat harsh when your friend shoots you down with an impatient accusation that you’ve told them this story before. You’d think they’d be more understanding – 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 and Colin MacLeod, the latter form is surprisingly under-researched. They’ve just published a new study suggesting that we’re 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. 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 and MacLeod’s first experiment confirmed the vulnerability of destination memory. Sixty undergrads looked at pictures of famous faces – half of them received a single fact from each face, in written form; the other half told a fact to each face. Afterwards the students were tested on their memory for which facts were associated with which faces, and those who’d received facts performed significantly better than those who’d told facts. Memory for the facts themselves, by contrast, was no different between the two groups.

The second and third experiments tested the idea that destination memory is weak thanks to the self-focus associated with disclosing rather than receiving information. Students who told facts to famous faces using personal pronouns (“I” and “my”) were even worse than usual at remembering to whom they’d told what. By contrast, destination memory was improved when students were trained to focus more on the famous face before sharing a fact with it. This attentional shift was achieved by instructing the participants to say each famous person’s name before disclosing a fact to them.

“It is remarkable that source memory has received intense research attention, whereas destination memory has been almost entirely overlooked,” the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgGopie N, & Macleod CM (2009). Destination Memory: Stop Me if I’ve Told You This Before. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 19891750

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.