Originally published January 15, 2013 at 5:39 a.m., updated January 21, 2013 at 3:34 p.m.
A quick visit to Facebook and I learn the following: someone is in a very long line at Trader Joe's. Others can’t believe how cold it is in San Diego. And, apparently, "Downton Abbey" was shocking this week.
Nicholas Christenfeld, psychology professor, UC San Diego
There are roughly 30 million updates posted to Facebook over the course of an hour. People share what they’re eating or their favorite movie. A new study out of UC San Diego has some surprising things to say about how memorable those updates really are.
None of these updates seem very memorable. But a researcher from UC San Diego says I’m wrong. "Somehow these tiny details about the life of a single person, even a single stranger, are intrinsically ready to be remembered," says Nicholas Christenfeld, psychology professor at UCSD. With roughly 30 million updates posted to Facebook over the course of an hour, analysis of their effect seem appropriate.
Christenfeld helped lead a study in which people were tested to see of it’s easier to remember a Facebook update versus a sentence of similar length from a published book. Turns out Facebook updates were twice as memorable. These weren't updates of people's friends, but rather 200 anonymous posts by strangers.
UCSD conducted the study with the University of Warwick. The results are published today in the Springer journal "Memory and Cognition." They offer a glimpse into the kind of information our brains are hardwired to remember.
The researchers conducted multiple tests to see just how memorable status updates are. One test looked at whether people remembered human faces more readily than Facebook updates. Once again, the updates stuck in the brain while the faces faded from memory.
Researchers then wondered if the fact that Facebook updates are designed to be complete thoughts helped make them more memorable. They pulled headlines from CNN and compared their memorability to random sentences from stories, because headlines tend to be complete nuggets of information. The headlines were, in fact, more memorable, which suggests that the completeness of Facebook updates helps them linger in our brains.
Researchers also looked at whether readers' comments were more memorable than sentences and headlines. Readers' comments, which tend to be more spontaneous and conversational and therefore comparable to Facebook updates, turned out to be the most memorable of all.
Christenfeld says Facebook updates are closer to the way we naturally speak, whereas finely crafted prose is not. "To some extent what Facebook has done is to bypass all of that crafting and honing and make this trivial sharing easy again in written language, the way it always has been in spoken language." Christenfeld adds that "our minds might be best tuned for this kind of language."
These results could also explain the popularity of gossip or reality television. "The mundane things of real people are intrinsically fascinating or engrossing," says Christenfeld. "Carefully scripted shows where people say clever and meaningful things pale in comparison to the lives of real people."
Whatever the reason, it appears our brains actually make storage room for the updates from strangers in our Facebook feeds.
So before you complain or express your anger on Facebook, think twice. It may linger in memory longer than you'd like.