Facebook and Memory
January 21, 2013 1:58 p.m.
Nicholas Christenfeld, psychology professor, UC San Diego
Related Story: Facebook More Memorable Than Books Or Faces
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Stay with us coming up an intriguing study that overturns assumptions about the way the brain remembers things that is just ahead. Our increasingly jampacked world where information assails us on every side is interesting to find our brains respond differently to little personal tidbits of information like the things we read on Facebook for example as opposed to well-crafted prose however significant or meaningful that may be. People trying to figure out the keep other people's attention the data-driven a society would do well to pay attention to the findings published recently in the Springer journal memory and cognition. So joining us to talk about his research is social psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld, professor at UCSD, thanks for being here
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: Glad to be here.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: By the way if you have any comments as you are listening feel free to call us. We'd love to hear from you are not phone number is 888-895-5727. So now let's start with , these Facebook posts a little status updates where people often write about very mundane aspects of their lives when did you decide you wanted to study and research those?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: Facebook of course is a enormous phenomenon and millions of people are doing this and it's easy to dismiss the process trivial, ephemeral fleeting things about people's lives. I had a long day but now I'm having a cup of tea and you think maybe there are nothing and one writes them and they vanished forever.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Waiting in the burger line, getting impatient, moments of time.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: On the other hand the popularity of it suggests that there may be something to this and ability people's desire to share these things and 1 billion people's desire to read them.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Just in case there may be some people who are not members of Facebook a lot of people decide they do not want to join Facebook because it's very time-consuming once you start and would you explain what a Facebook post is.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: It's an opportunity for status updates you can post what you want and this post could be something about your life at the moment and they tend to be very brief like a public diary entry in some ways.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: That's a good way of putting it so what did you learn about the impact of the Facebook posts on their readers?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: The remarkable thing is that in spite of all these appearances they are stunningly memorable and we've had people read hundreds of these and tested them did you read this one before yes or no, how confident are you and it turns out people are extraordinarily good at remembering these there is something about the way these are written that resonates naturally with the human mind.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: As you set up the test, how did you structure it
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: We gathered several hundred posts of strangers not attributable to anyone
ALLISON ST. JOHN: These are people you are not friends with, they are
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: You cannot elaborate on or connect anything to they are just I had a long day and I had a cup of tea you do not know who wrote it or what their day was that people read 100 of these, they look at each one for 3 seconds and later retesting on 200, 100 they read and 100 they've never seen before and their job is to recognize the once they've seen before and say yes I'm sure I've seen a one or this one I'm sure is new.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Were you surprised by what you found?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: We compared all sorts of things he compared it to sentences from published books, you can do the same thing with prose that is carefully owned and published and edited. We also did it with human faces that maybe people are tuned to remember those that will be doing this people are vastly better at remembering which Facebook post they have seen before. It was a surprise but as with many of my findings in retrospect I'm not surprised by that. I realized I should've been people like reading the post and to suggest that there is something about them that fits naturally into the human mind.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So what did you come to the conclusion is the reason why Facebook posts are easy to remember and then headlines or faces, that is so surprising.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: There are all sorts of funds there are trivial superstitious ones maybe the length of them, the polling is that to be just right for memorizing but it turns out that is not it, the link is not predictive. We thought it was maybe reared orthography, people write in all capital letters or exclamation points, but it turns out that is not it. If you use once with standard orthography they are just as memorable. Maybe it is gossiping is either completely so the thought, that one of the reason they're better than a book sentences that a book has lots of sentences in the sentence we chose is potentially out of context whereas a Facebook post is designed to stand alone. So we look at that by comparing CNN headlines from news stories to sentences drawn at random from the new stories and it turns out that sentences are better remembered than sentences from the stories people are designing them to be concise and informative and catchy, but what is remembered even better than the headlights is random reader comments at the end of the article that the kind of thing that people post off-the-cuff without offering any consideration remember even better than the headline and I think it is similar to the Facebook phenomenon.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: It's true often the thing that's most interesting is people's random comments afterward the Facebook status is that something about it people expressing their opinion affecting our brain differently?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: If you think about it this is allowing writing to go back and to allow writing to do language was designed to do in the first place there's been an awkward 5000 years of writing. It's very slow and painful. You had to make a clay tablet and press into it with the stylus before you wrote you would consider very carefully what you wrote and you would do any off-the-cuff kind of thing if you had to iron papyrus flat
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Or carved into a rock like (Nehemiah)?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: Or did a pen into effort it causes you to write in a way that is not entirely natural for speech whereas in some way what Facebook and microblogs allow you to do is write the way you talk and if you imagine that the human linguistic apparatus has evolved to do this sort of thing what it is designed for is people off the cuff saying things about their lives.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So what does this, for example people who are crafting messages who want us to remember things, what does this tell us about the way the brain processes information and remember said, what are you finding out?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: In retrospect one can see how the finding is consistent with all sorts of other phenomena. In my own business of lecturing there are people who write textbooks to go to enormous trouble to make them perfect or as perfect as they can teams of editors, to go for the revisions every couple of years.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: It sounds like the newsroom.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: And yet it is still worth be standing up to a roomful of people and talking relatively off-the-cuff to a roomful of students and students find this is an easier way of taking information even though it is less polished and crafted somehow it does fit with what people want to hear or parables, right there is a long history of the basic moral lessons of our culture being passed on not simply as a list of things, you know, there is a 10 Commandments, but really, the morals are passed on through stories. There was a guy who walked along the road and he saw someone, and you don't just say that it's nice to help strangers, you actually tell the story of the man along the road and saw lots of these things resonate with people and one wants a story.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: I can understand how it would perhaps be processed by the brain and you could absorb them more easily, it's less work, let's face it, but and remembering it as well, that just seems surprising that something that has less significance would actually be more easy to remember.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: I think it somehow naturally did fits into one's mind. We had one follow-up study that speaks to the same thing, we call it the Bible study where we took different translations of the Bible, you know, there's been debate over the years of, should the Bible the grand language, like the King James translation. Uses these archaic verbs you know, he begat him, and he tossed thing, and that there are other translations that try to make it thinking into the natural for lacking vernacular language of the people in the argument doesn't lose a sort of beauty and residents that the King James translation has and one can assess himself question we did with Facebook with translations of the Bible, to the good news Bible, or the even more casual translations pass more easily and stick more readily in people's brains and the author does seem to be that they do.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So you think some of the fact that you discover to help explain this help explain why Twitter is so successful?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: There are lots of these forms now reader comments, article streets, Facebook status updates, That the casual office of communications seem all the rage in all sorts of context.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: We're speaking with Nicholas Christenfeld who's a professor of social psychology at UCSD about his research, and you do a lot of research that seems to fall under the category of myth busting, why do you gravitate toward that kind of research?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: That calls for a little PR spiel on social psychology.The advantage of being a social psychologist is one has the tools of science to address the questions that people find fascinating. I spent my career looking at these things, not necessarily developed designed specifically to bust myths, but to examine the sorts of things that people have wondered for years. Do babies actually look like their parents, or pets look like their owners?
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Do they?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: Babies tend to resemble in particular their fathers rather than their mothers.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: Did you come up with an explanation for that one?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: I thought when I looked at babies that they look twice and Goldman and unable to think of anything like to say about the creatures would make up stuff like oh my gosh she looks just like his father, it turns out that they really do look like the father people are not making that up to look like and one of the arguments for this and it fits in with this adaptive pressure that the mother knows the baby no matter what it looks like is hers, it came out of her body, whereas the father never has quite the same certainty, so baby that comes out looking like the father can actually did encourage paternal investment. He will take care of it, change its papers, pay for its college and so on.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: I've heard about couples who've been married for many years looking more like each other but your research shows that people begin to look like, how did you prove that they start to look more like their pets?
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: People have wondered about couples, you know, do they eat the same food and vacation in the same amount of some might and so on, and with pets it is harder to develop a good theory. You know, they both catch Frisbees in their mouths or something that would cause them to look like and the finding actually was that it's not that they come to look like, if that's are probably picked because they look like the owners and actually I think it may speak more generally to why people have pets in the first place, that one has a basic desire to take care of little tiny nonverbal helpless creatures that look like you have normally they are your children and that is a very adaptive role.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: So it is a little bit like picking a child.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: I think so but a lot of people find that their practice pets before their children, will say we are not sure if we are ready for children let's try a Google first. And then I know lots of my students when they go away to college find that they've been replaced by a pet. So when they go home for Christmas sorry you have to sleep in the garage, fluffy as you are now.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: But your research shows that people were able to be matched with the owner.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: We use dogs. I suppose it would be harder with goldfish, but with purebred dogs you can well above chance managed to talk with the owner that people are picking something in a dog that in some way resembles what they look like.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: I'm sure that will make people think twice before they go off to pick a pet, to be a little bit more self-aware about what it is they are actually doing. There was another research study that was really interesting about what you are doing that what makes a good story a good story. Is it the happy ending I think a lot of people would like to know the answer to this one.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: This question started fascinatingly when I was helping my daughter quite young at the time tell. Stories should be given an assignment to write a great story and she writes a story about someone who wakes up in the morning and does this, that and another thing, then he's the anti-goes to sleep and they try to explain no, you need an arc that he needs to have some obstacle in struggle against the obstacle and overcome and learn something from the experience and I thought, why? I had this notion that the story had to do that and it was clear to me at all why it had to do that and in fact in the old days, stories did not do that, so Don Quixote famously does one thing after another and he goes home the same person. But there's the notion of a story arc and a lot of it hinges on the notion of suspense that what stories want to do is set up some mystery or puzzle or obstacle and you do not know if the person will triumph or not. So one thing we did, this was work that I did with my graduate student John Leavitt was to take away the suspense these are of course spoilers, that you can't give away what happens at the end with things like murder stories are mysteries or erotic stories it is very easy to do, you can say this lottery is not a price it is to be stoned to death.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: To take away from what it is to be a good story
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: The finding was it didn't even the opposite effect that even where mystery stories the whole point is industry, spoiling them actually enhance them, that these ways of giving away the ending make the story actually better.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: We sort of run out of time I was hoping would you give us the tip as to what it is that makes a good story but you cannot sum that up in a few seconds.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: I cannot spoil that.
ALLISON ST. JOHN: We will have to look at your website and the research thank you so much social psychologist that is definitely kind of an intriguing field of study Nicholas Christian to from UCSD thanks so much for joining us.
NICHOLAS CHRISTENFELD: It's been a pleasure, thanks.