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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Infectious" Memory

We all know that people tend to conform their thinking and beliefs to those of their social group. We call this  peer pressure or “group think.” What many do not realize is that similar effects occur with what we remember. The conformity effect of group think and “infectious” memory is the reason it is so frustrating trying to argue over polarized positions, like politics or religion. In politics for example, conservatives, believing in lower taxes, recall that Regan  lowered taxes, while apparently forgetting that the rate then was an outrageous 90%, counting all taxes. I have heard liberals, believing in higher taxes, say that lowering taxes does not raise federal revenues and that Regan actually raised taxes. In other words, people tend to remember what supports their belief system and forget what does not It’s more comfortable intellectually not to be confused by the facts.

When people reminisce in groups, like family reunions, political rallies, or other social groups, they tend to remember many of the same things, even when some of those things are factually wrong.  Think about how people tell stories. Most of us embellish the story to make it more interesting. With repeated telling, the embellishments gradually get incorporated into the story teller’s memory, even to the point where it becomes a different story. This is an example where the storyteller has infected his own memory. But the group of listeners add their own small embellishments, some of which may even be wrong, to the recollection, and these provide memory infection from the group.

Group contamination of remembered fact can have serious consequences, ranging, for example, from political and religious intolerance, prejudices of all sorts, and wrongful criminal convictions resulting from false eyewitness testimony.

Not surprisingly, infectious memory is not only caused by faulty memory processes in brain but also help create the faulty brain processes. Researchers in Israel and Great Britain teamed up to use brain imaging to study infectious memory. They tested how subjects remembered from recollection of others.
The strategy was to show a movie to groups of five and then test for individual recall.  The first memory test revealed how much the person initially remembered and how confident the person was about the recall accuracy.  Then, a second test of recall occurred after attempts to socially manipulate the memory. Finally, a third memory test occurred after the  social manipulation was removed. The social manipulation,  given four days after Test 1, involved presentation of fabricated recollections of the movie from the other four group members.

A given subject tended to conform his own memory to that of the group, even when the group’s memory was fabricated by the experimenter. With Test 2, after social manipulation with false information, subjects conformed their memory to that of the group’s recall in 68.3%  of the test trials, versus only 15.5% in the non-manipulated condition. Test 3, performed 11 days later, revealed that memory error still persisted but at a lower rate. Even so, errors were significantly greater in the socially manipulated group than in the non-manipulated group.

Brain imaging (functional MRI) revealed that infectious memory modified the brain activity representation of memory. That is, whether a person would form a long-lasting memory that conformed to erroneous memories of the group could be predicted by a particular imaging signature of increased activity in the two major areas known to form memories, the amygdala and the hippocampus. Such increased activity was only seen when the infected memory became long-lasting, not for memories that did not survive.

One might question why humans have this tendency for group think and group memory. Presumably, it has value because “two minds are better than one,” that is, most individuals can benefit from the thinking of others.  Learning should be more efficient and accurate. However, serious problems can arise when the group is wrong, as in religious cults, authoritarian governments, and social prejudices.

All of this makes a strong case that you should not spend all your time with people who think like you do. Likewise, what you read and watch on TV should be diverse. If you are religious, maybe you should read both the Bible and the Koran (a little Buddhism might help too).  If you are a news junkie, maybe you should watch both Fox News and the mainstream networks. If all your friends are in the same ethnic or socio-economic group, maybe you need some new friends..I am not arguing that you should be all things to all people, just that your opinions and the remembered basis for them be more completely informed and accurate.

Source: Roediger, H. L. III and McDermott, K. B. 2011. Remember when? Science. 333, 108-111.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

U.S. Dept.of unEducation

In a my last blog post, I argued that the  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is counterproductive. This is just one of many examples where government bureaucrats seem to sit around all day thinking up things to tell us we can and cannot do. These anointed experts think they know best. Worse yet, they can’t seem to recognize when their mandates don’t work.

There is another most recent example where government pontificators want new educational programs to foist on the public. Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu and Patty Murray proposed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a mandated solution to the very real problem that there are three million job openings in the U.S. right now that cannot be filled because people lack  the training. Instead of our protective treatment of illiterate illegal immigrants while discriminating against foreigners who have the training that could fill those jobs, they propose a taxpayer-funded special jobs training programs. Clearly, their claim they want to help business won’t wash. They just want  to buy votes.

First, they know about the report of the National Commission of Adult Literacy showing that 90 million adults are too educationally challenged to likely succeed in post-secondary training. Every year 1.8 million students don’t even make it out of high school. A poll of businesses showed that 67% of the owners said they had trouble finding competent workers. Another poll showed that 42% of small business owners hired fewer people than they really needed because of the scarcity of skilled workers. Landrieu and Murray acknowledge that one reason companies are moving off shore is to find good workers. Notably, these Senators won’t acknowledge that government over-regulation and tax policy have anything to do with business leaving America. All of this contributes to a very real economic problem. But the Senators’ solution is to expand and develop multiple government programs funded with money we don’t have. They want to treat the symptom (lack of skills) instead of the underlying causes (social deterioration and poor public education).

The social deterioration is promoted by a government entitlement environment in which politicians urge the “have-nots” to envy and hate the people who have things they do not. Envy is  poisonous for  individuals and for society. Just such an environment has spawned the recent riots in England, and I fear it will break out soon here (so-called “flash mob attacks already have). The losers in our society are told they have an excuse (being exploited by the “rich”) rather than being told they have to become more personally responsible. These folks need to read my “Blame Game” book.

The poor public education is generally acknowledged, but nobody seems to know how to fix it. The supposed fixes coming from the Dept. of Education just do not work. There are legitimate roles for the DOE, but they need to stop telling us what we have to do. They should focus on promoting educational research and more inclusive think-tank activities for ideas (not mandates) for educational reform.

Implicit in the NCLB law is an assumption that states can't be trusted because many of them don’t really care about improving education. How absurd! The states, above all, have the greatest vested interest in producing a competent work force to stimulate their local businesses. States compete with other states for tax-generating business. Most states are ineffective in educating their youngsters, but it is because their policy makers don’t know any better and because federal educational law causes more problems than it solves. The federal government should help, not be in the way.