A Post-Script on Teamwork: Can Groups Hurt Memory?

Today, I was planning to write about memory in decision making, but when I came across this new review in Current Directions in Psychological Science, I felt like I had to write a brief post-script to last week’s blog post on teamwork. A series of studies on the effects of group collaboration on memory: what better way to add another perspective to last week’s topic while introducing the next one?


How groups can hurt memory retrieval

Apparently, goal commitment and attainment is not the only place where a team approach can hurt. If we work together, chances are, we will recall things worse than if we were to work apart. Researchers at Stony Brook University showed that, when people learned a list of items, in a typical memory paradigm, those who then recalled the items individually were able to retrieve 68-70% of the items, while those who were asked to perform the recall in collaborative triads (groups of three people) remembered only 54-56%, a phenomenon known as collaborative inhibition.

Various factors contribute to collaborative inhibition. There are the social explanations, such as social loafing (we don’t try as hard because we don’t feel as personally responsible for or invested in the outcome) and social conformity (we do as the group does and try not to stand out too much), but there are also more fundamental factors at play. Namely, the individual retrieval process may actually be disrupted. In other words, when we recall information, we normally have our own way of doing so. We have strategies that work for us, mnemonics or memory devices and tricks, ties to personal information that makes the material somehow more relevant. But, when we are in a group, we have to listen to everyone else, too – and their way of retrieving information might be quite different from, or in the worst case, clash directly with, our own. And so, our own memory process becomes jumbled up and we can no longer remember what we knew just a moment earlier.

Lasting effects on remembering

Moreover, even after the fact, we might no longer have access to the stored information: once it has been disrupted, it might not go back inside its little memory drawer in the exact same way as before – or might have gotten lumped into a different drawer altogether. And so, the next time we go to look for it, we may not find it, and over time, we may even forget to look altogether. This phenomenon is called socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting, and can even occur with such charged memories as those surrounding September 11.

What’s more, the next time we look in that memory drawer, we might find that the memory has shifted, incorporating incorrect information that someone in our group had brought up when we first discussed it. In other words, our memories can become contaminated via the inputs of others with whom we discussed those memories. This is called social contagion.

Why study groups may hurt you more than they help you

Finally, memories that are created together to begin with (so, instead of learning that word list by yourself, you learn it together with someone else) seem to show even greater deficits, known as collaborative encoding deficits. When we create memory retrieval cues together, it seems, we are worse at it then when we do so alone. This makes sense if we consider the potential difference in encoding styles described above – and it should also make us more wary of group study sessions or other attempts at collaborative learning.

Is there a bright side?

But again, it’s not all bad. Groups can help us remember details we’ve forgotten and can weed out errors that we have inadvertently introduced into our own knowledge. Moreover, shared remembering may be useful in a therapeutic setting, helping individuals work through traumatic events and recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Again, then, the point is not to say groups are bad for memory, or groups are good for memory, but to make ourselves aware of the possible influences that groups can exert on our memory processes and to be mindful of them as we make our decisions, be they decisions about how to learn information, or decisions on seemingly unrelated topics that may actually end up tying back to those initial memory processes. More on the last point, tomorrow.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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