Trouble Remembering? Tell Your Friends to Take a Hike

Could collaborative inhibition be bad news for pretty much every study group ever? franckreporter/Getty Images
Could collaborative inhibition be bad news for pretty much every study group ever? franckreporter/Getty Images

Trying to remember something as a group, it turns out, often doesn't work as well as trying to remember it on your own. Think the jury in "12 Angry Men," or your mates in your AP Physics Hangout, or all your friends racking their brains trying to remember a party-filled Friday night.

Sometimes, it's just better to go it on your own.


That known psychological phenomenon of poor group recall — it's known as collaborative inhibition (CI) — is the focus of a new study that seeks to uncover what makes it that way. 

The paper, in the journal Psychological Bulletin, is the work of Craig Thorley, a psychology professor at the University of Liverpool, and Stéphanie B. Marion from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. It is, Thorley says, the first systematic meta-analysis of the pros and cons of collaborative remembering.

The concept of CI has been around since the late '90s. The definition is simple enough:

"It's a situation where groups underperform on memory tests. The group members don't recall to their fullest potential," Thorley says. "Something's going on that stops them from recalling to their fullest potential."

The theories on what that something is that affects recall have just begun to be tested. Thorley and Marion zero in on one that concerns how people access their memories. Or, more accurately, how they're kept from accessing their memories.

"Everyone talks about it. Everybody cites it. But very few studies have actually tested it," Thorley says. "So we really compiled a lot of evidence from all the studies ... just to try to find out if, hey, is the main theory — this 'retrieval strategy disruption' — is there actually evidence to support it?"

The theory of "retrieval strategy disruption" is a relatively new one, which might account for the sparse research on it. That definition also is relatively straightforward:

Individuals have certain ways of recalling something. In a group, those ways clash.

For example, one person might try to remember all the players in Major League Baseball by team; first the Red Sox, then the Yankees and so on. Another might go first with those who are playing best. Another might go National League first. Another might start with the American League.

When those methods collide in a group setting ("Quiet, I'm trying to remember!"), recall suffers. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to access those memories. CI also was found to be strong, the paper says, in a few other instances, including when group members didn't know each other. (Family members, Thorley says, work better together because of their familiarity.)

The results led Thorley and Marion to conclude that "retrieval strategy disruption" — again, having your way of remembering messed up by others and their methods — was a legit and science-based explanation for CI.

The best way to counter retrieval disruption?

"Essentially, if you wanted to get the most complete account of something, whether it's a story or a film or an event, and you had a group of people," Thorley says, "the best thing to do would be to get them to recall it individually, and then combine what they remember afterward, and then you get a more complete account."

Interestingly enough, Thorley stresses "complete" there. If you want a "complete" account, breaking your group up may be the way to go. Accuracy, though, is a different story.

For accuracy — and, the authors say, for individual recall in the long term — groups are better.

"When you get people in a group, they correct each other's mistakes, so they actually make fewer mistakes," Thorley says. "So, really, a group needs to decide — or somebody needs to decide for the group — what's its primary focus: Do you want the group that is going to be highly accurate but not that complete, which might be important, for example, if you get witnesses to recall a crime.

"Or do you want to place completeness over accuracy? Is that more important? There's no right or wrong answer. It's just a case of weighing what you want. You can't have both, essentially."