Remembering together – How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems

Although it might seem a good idea to work with other people to remember important information, the evidence suggests that this typically isn’t so. Individual recall is most efficient whereas social remembering comes with drawbacks, tripping up our flow and inhibiting memories. But this evidence mostly comes from asking people to collaborate with a stranger. What happens when you know each other really, really well?

Celia Harris and colleagues at Macquarie University recently reviewed their previously published and new research on social remembering by long-term intimate couples. Their data showed that on standard tasks, such as reproducing words from studied lists, couples working together often did as well as when they worked alone. This lack of a penalty from social remembering is itself notable, but it’s just a gateway into more intriguing findings.

During another study, the researchers noticed that although couples did more poorly at listing their shared holidays when recalling together, these social sessions were filled with anecdotes and tangents that weren’t generated in the solo sessions. This inspired them to depart from testing memory for lists of words and events, and to explore the amount of rich, in-depth information remembered by couples about experienced events. They found these social exchanges led to clear collaborative memory benefits, which could take three forms:

  1. “New information” such as finally snatching an elusive name of a musical thanks to a chain of prompts between the two parties.
  2. Richer, more vivid descriptions of events including sensory information.
  3. Information from one partner painting things in a new light for the other.

Differences between the couples were crucial. Those who structured their approach together and were more prepared to riff off the other’s contributions did better than those who were more passive or critical. Richer events were also better remembered by partners who rated their intimacy as higher.

The authors note that older adults tend to experience the greatest memory difficulties with first-hand autobiographical information, rather than abstracted facts. This is exactly where the couples gained the biggest benefit from remembering together, as evidenced by performance on the in-depth event recall task and the spontaneously emerging anecdotes. It’s possible that as we grow older, we offset the unreliability of our own episodic systems by drawing on the memorial support offered by a trusted partner. This might explain why when one member of an older couple experiences a drop in cognitive function, the other soon follows. Our memory systems are more of a shared resource than we realise.


Harris, C., Barnier, A., Sutton, J., & Keil, P. (2014). Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts Memory Studies, 7 (3), 285-297 DOI: 10.1177/1750698014530619

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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