It has happened to almost everyone (and on numerous occasions to this reporter): you finish telling a story or relating an event to a friend or co-worker when they inform you (often after you’ve gone on for minutes or longer) that you’ve already told them this before, maybe even for the third time. Like the movie “Groundhog Day,” it seems like you’re caught in some endless loop where the anecdotes and punch lines never change. According to new research, it isn’t an entirely irrational concern. Nigel Gopie, a postdoctoral fellow at Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, who has a paper published in the journal Psychological Science regarding these memory lapses, says “You hear people of all ages, not just elderly people, say, ‘Stop me if I’ve told you this before.’ We often have a hard time remembering who we told things to, and clearly it starts early.”
The long study of memory has led psychologists to make distinctions between short-term and long-term. Important differences have been documented between explicit memories, such as for faces and words, and the implicit kind, for instance, in driving skills. Hundreds of studies have been published dealing with autobiographical memory, false memories and so-called source memory — being able to recall where a fact was picked up (from, say, a book, a magazine, or a TV show). But experts have paid scant attention to what Gopie and co-author Colin MacLeod of University of Waterloo in Ontario call “destination memory,” that is, to whom we have communicated information. Although the source of information we recall can be very important (“Did I see that on ‘The Today Show’ or ‘The Colbert Report’?”), so is where and to whom it goes. Psychologists say that our jokes, our stories, our secrets form a key aspect of our social identity. When you repeat yourself, it’s not only embarrassing: it can be destructive for anyone who is trying to keep information or secrets, personal or professional.
The primary finding of Dr. Gopie and Dr. MacLeod, that “destination memory” is pretty weak, helps a number of different potentially embarrassing, and annoying, types of social interaction. In short, the study concluded that outgoing information “was less integrated with its environmental context — i.e., the person — than was incoming information.” Basically, we’re more likely to remember who told us something than whom we’ve told. Psychologists say this makes sense given what we know about attention span: it’s limited (hence the invention of the 10-second TV commercial). Self-absorption also plays a part. Nevertheless, the research suggests that some of our most involved, detailed stories — the ones that are the most self-distracting to tell — are the ones most likely to be met with a response such as “I know, you’ve already told me.”
That tendency to go blank about who-I-said-what-to might actually be evidence of a healthy memory at work. There’s evidence that when we reset a password or memorize a new phone number for a friend, the brain actively suppresses the out-of-date information. Because the old digits are competing with the new ones for memory space, the memory ‘deletes’ the potentially conflicting info. And retold stories aren’t always socially embarrassing or redundant. Repeated often enough, they become ritual, and, over time, oral history, Dr. Gobie says. It is also interesting to note that people with the most to gain – or lose – in terms of whom hears what (lobbyists, attorneys, salespeople) will often use the name of the person they are speaking with as a reminder: “Did I mention, Tom, the free emergency roadside assistance package?” While it could be could considered flattery, it could also be a means of tracking where information is going.
Researchers say that improved understanding of destination memory could help detect age-related memory problems sooner. It may also provide more insight into the way memory works. Still, that’s cold comfort for you on New Year’s Day, living through Uncle Gus’ fifth retelling of the homecoming game story. Pass the cider.