October 24, 2016

Researchers Study the Influence of Social Media on Memory

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You probably remember that embarrassing photo you posted on Facebook last summer or the one in your family photo album with your two front teeth missing. Ever wonder why?

It might have something to do with the way these memories were shared. A recent study by Prof. Qi Wang, human development,  reveals that posting personal events on social media make those events significantly easier to recall. Wang is interested in studying social cognition, specifically how memories and personal experiences help shape an individual’s identity. As social media has become an integral part of our daily lives, Wang has been interested in finding its larger implications, including its role in selective memory.

The study, titled “Externalizing the autobiographical self: sharing personal memories online facilitated memory retention” published in the journal, Memory, is one of the first to examine social media’s effect on memory.

In the study, Prof. Wang and her co-authors, Dasom Lee ’13 and Yubo Hou, Peking University, asked 66 Cornell undergraduate students to recall and record their daily experiences. These events document each student’s experiences in college, such as “an argument with a roommate”, in a journal for a week.

The students were also asked to record whether they posted the event on social media. For the purpose of the study, social media includes platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and blog posts. Additionally, the participants were also asked to rate their daily experiences on a scale of importance based on emotional and personal relevance. Finally, Wang gave the research pool a surprise memory test on what they could recall.

At the end of the week, Wang found the results to be fascinating. The recollection of events was found to be independent of the personal importance of the event for a participant.

“Events that were reported to be posted online were much more likely to be recalled than those not posted online,” Wang said. “This is also independent of whether the participant viewed the event to be important.”

Based on the results, Wang concluded that, “as long as the events were posted online, they were much more likely to be recalled.”

Wang also noticed that the participants’ age determines how frequently they share their experiences on social media.

“In terms of sharing experiences, it is a phenomenon in all age groups,” Wang said. “But of course, age also determines how technologically savvy you are.”

Wang concluded that social media is a “powerful” tool for scientists to study human behavior.

“When we share our experiences, we’re frequently expressing who we are as individuals and receiving advice from peers,” Wang said.

Based on previous memory research, she explained, “pictures leave a more lasting impression on people’s ability to recall the event.” This means that social media posts with images could enhance memory recall.

“One picture is worth a thousand words after all,” Wang said.

In recent times, not only are we doing this in real-time by confiding in our peers, but also publishing these stories on a platform that is much more accessible to a wider public. Hence, Wang and her team were motivated to discover the consequences and benefits from modern-day storytelling on social media, when the user is simultaneously engaged, yet disengaged.

In the future, Wang and her team hope to replicate this study in a more controlled environment, to observe whether a more subtle manipulation of online versus offline posts could influence memory recall.