Why Remember What You Can Find Online?

Where do you store important information? According to psychological scientist Betsy Sparrow, the answer isn’t always “in your brain.” Sparrow says that we allow ourselves to forget information that we are confident the people around us (our spouses and friends, for example) will remember. Increasingly, we rely on technology as well.

This phenomenon is called transactive memory. To highlight transactive memory, Sparrow and her colleagues asked participants to type 40 facts — such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.” Half of the participants were told that the computer would save their lists and half were told it would not. The results, which were published in the journal Science, showed that participants who did not expect their lists to be saved were much more likely to remember the facts that they typed.

For some, this research begs the question, “Is technology ruining our memories?” Sparrow doesn’t think so. In an interview with PBS, she points out that humans have always relied on other people’s memories without giving it much thought. Because computers store such much data and have revolutionized our lives, they just seem scarier than more traditional transitive memory sources.

Watch this humorous take on Sparrow’s research on The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert exaggerates that “technology turns people into empty flesh terminals that rely on it for all their ideas, memories, and relationships.” (His words not ours!)

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