Working Together: Collaboration and Accuracy of Memory
Any project requires successful learning and retrieval of new information, such as deadlines, strategies and project details. When collaborating with others, we are not only relying on the accuracy of our own memories; we are also relying on the accuracy of memories of others. A significant body of research has demonstrated that working in a group can promote accurate memory in some cases but can actually lead to confusion and false recall in others. This activity is designed to highlight the times when collaboration can enhance accuracy of memory and times when it can be detrimental.
You will need one standard deck of 52 playing cards. This task is designed for two groups of three people, but can be amended to include more.
1. Shuffle the cards well, and deal out 26 of them in a pile face-down. Set the other 26 cards aside.
2. One at a time, and out of view of the other group members, each person should spend thirty seconds silently studying the 26 cards that were dealt. Each person should use whatever strategy he or she is most comfortable with to try and memorize the cards. Do not write them down, or discuss them with others in the group. After thirty seconds, turn them over, and the next person should study them.
3. After all six members have studied the cards, take a break of at least half an hour. The longer, the better – you can even complete the rest of the task the next day or after several days, if time permits.
4. After the delay, three group members should separately – and without sharing their responses with anyone else – take three minutes to write down as many of the cards as they remember seeing. The remaining three group members should take three minutes and work together to list as many cards as they remember seeing.
5. Total up the number of unique responses from the three members who worked separately (e.g., if Person A remembered the king of clubs, four of hearts, and jack of diamonds and Person B remembered the king of clubs, four of hearts, and five of diamonds their total would be four unique responses).
6. Compare that total to the total number of cards that the collaborative group remembered.
Though your results may vary, many times the “sum of the parts” of individuals working separately will be greater than that of the group who worked together. This is a well-established effect called collaborative inhibition: when people must work together to recall information in this way, working in a group often hinders memory. Each person has their own idiosyncratic strategy for recalling information; Person D might visualize the cards organized by number and suit, for example, while Person E might think of what types of poker hands they could make from the cards.
When Person D and Person E both start naming items, their strategies interfere with one another, and disrupt information retrieval. This effect will become even more apparent when there is a longer delay between study and test. Also, make a note of how many cards the individuals versus the group incorrectly recall having studied – again, research indicates that groups are more likely to falsely recall more unstudied items (e.g., saying that the seven of spades was studied when it really wasn’t) than individuals are.
You will once again need a deck of 52 cards, with 26 dealt out and 26 set aside.
1. Repeat steps 1-3 from Activity 1: everyone should take turns spending thirty seconds studying the 26 dealt cards, and then take a break of at least half an hour.
2. Put all of the cards back into the deck (one person who is not participating in the activity should make a note of what they are, so he or she can check everyone’s answers at the end).
3. Three individuals will now test their recognition memory by themselves: flip over one card at a time, and write down whether that card is OLD, meaning it was one of the 26 previously studied, or NEW, meaning that it was one of the 26 unstudied cards.
4. The other three individuals will test their recognition memory in a group: flip over one card at a time, and discuss as a group whether each card is OLD or NEW. Keep the discussion brief, and arrive at a consensus.
5.Compare the accuracy of each individual to the accuracy of the group.
Again, your results may vary, but typically the group will be more accurate at differentiating old and new cards than the individuals are. On tests like this, where information just needs to be recognized as previously encountered, working in a group facilitates memory by weeding out errors. Though it is easy for an individual to incorrectly identify an OLD card as unstudied, members of the group would all need to incorrectly identify the OLD card as unstudied to make an error. All it takes is one person to be able to jog everyone else’s memory to weed out that error. This is called error pruning.
Together, these two activities should help develop effective strategies for tasks like brainstorming sessions. Think about how collaborative inhibition might affect a situation where collaborators are discussing details about a project to try and develop a strategy to move forward, especially when those details may have been learned days, weeks, or months before. Then think about how recognition facilitation might be used advantageously to prune out impractical ideas or incorrect information. One effective strategy might be to have collaborators brainstorm separately, when they will not be subject to the effects of collaborative inhibition. Then, after members have brainstormed separately, they can share their ideas in a group to help prune out thoughts or ideas based on incorrect information.