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Dr. Laura Mickes, University of Warwick – Social Media and Memory

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Laura Mickes of the University of Warwick explores why it’s often easy to remember a friend’s Facebook status but hard to remember a profound literary quote. 

Laura Mickes is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick and a Visiting Scholar in the Wixted Memory Lab at the University of California San Diego. Her research focuses on signal-detection theory and dual-process theory of recognition memory, eyewitness memory, and mechanisms of memory for social information. Other interests include the neuropsychology of aging and dementia, and gender stereotypes on humor production.

About Dr. Mickes

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Dr. Laura Mickes – Social Media and Memory

Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are incredibly popular. People post their thoughts, as microblogs, over 30 million times an hour on Facebook alone. One would not expect casually written posts to be remembered better than words penned by professional authors and edited by professional editors, but that is exactly what we found.

In one experiment, people memorized Facebook posts or sentences from various books. They were tested on those items and items that they didn’t see and indicated if they saw or did not see each item previously. We found that Facebook posts were remembered much better. One might think that the sentences were just particularly hard to remember, but when we compared Facebook posts to faces, the same finding emerged – the posts were much more memorable.
So what’s happening?

Could it be that when people are tasked with memorizing the Facebook posts, they naturally encode them with respect to people they know? And for that reason, posts would be remembered better. For example, I may see a post and think: that seems like something my sister would write. We tested, and ruled out, that explanation.

Could it be that microblogs stand-alone, whereas sentences from books do not? Or could it be that microblogs are more gossipy in nature? We found some support for both ideas, but neither idea was sufficient to fully explain the remarkable memorability of microblogs.

It seems that with the growing popularity of microblogs, written language is moving closer to natural speech. Perhaps the differences in memorability were so pronounced because the unedited, unfiltered emanations of the human mind resonate with the recipients. In other words, casually generated language comes to mind easily and is easily remembered. Facebook posts or Tweets may be discounted as trivial, but this form of communication can provide a glimpse into how memory works.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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