Memory is critical to communication. The near-instantaneous understanding of a familiar word in a conversation, recognizing an advertising image, mentally disagreeing with a politician’s speech, feeling sympathy for a soap opera character, understanding why today’s events in an ongoing news story are important, and countless other responses to communication are all connected in some way with what we have stored in our nervous system. In many ways our personhood and our interactions with the world are defined by the memories we store and use.
The Function Of Memory
Three decades ago investigators focused on message and viewer characteristics that influenced message recall. Communication scholars now understand this focus does not capture the complex interactions between messages and memory. Messages are not just stored. When we process messages, their nature can influence how we process them. But what we already have in memory influences how and what we process. For example, highly arousing messages are processed differently than messages that are not arousing, and how arousing a message seems depends on what is already stored in memory. Retrieving a memory is not just a matter of pulling something out of a mental file. Judgment is important in memory.
Much of what we remember is a reconstruction based on inferences about what usually happens. This works well much of the time, adding to the efficiency of memory, but it also means we sometimes remember things more the way we expect them to be than the way they really were. Memories also vary in strength. Sometimes we are willing to believe we remember a weak memory. Other times, when the consequences of a mistake are greater, we may hesitate to act on a stronger memory. You might be willing to guess at a waiter’s name in a restaurant, but you may not want to guess at your employer’s spouse’s name.
Also, different measures of memory reveal different things about memory. Early studies of memory for television focused on recall. That is, offering few cues, investigators asked people what they remembered about a message. Recall is difficult and only measures some aspects of memory. Today, in addition to recall, researchers use measures that can separate judgment from memory strength (signal detection), measures that detect traces of memory we are not aware of (implicit measures), and measures of how quickly and efficiently we can retrieve a memory (latency measures). Thus, scholars now look at memory as a complex interaction among the nature of the message, our perceptions, conscious and unconscious mental processes, and what we already know.
The memory phenomena associated with communication are almost unlimited. A few are discussed below. One way to look at this is by examining what it is about communication that influences what gets stored, and how what is stored influences what we get out of communication.
Memory For News
Memory for news was one of the earliest concerns of modern communication scholars. While early studies looked at relatively crude differences such as whether print was better remembered than television, contemporary scholars know that a variety of structural and audience characteristics influence memory for news. Keep in mind that there are many things that can be remembered from the news, including visual information and text.
In general people better remember stories that are perceived as negative, relevant, and vivid, contain contextual information, are of human interest, and are about personalities. Considerable research indicates that for both print and television news, congruence and redundancy between visuals and verbal elements help memory. Stories that are heavily covered are also better remembered. Audience members who are better educated and more informed remember more. Memory may actually increase over time if people continue to think about a news story. The current trend is to see these structural and audience characteristics in light of how the information is processed.
Structure, Pacing, Recall, And Recognition
Psychologists have known for many years that at any given moment (a moment in this case is usually between about two-tenths of a second and about a second) people can process only a limited amount of information. This is known as limited capacity. Such processes happen too fast for conscious control; they happen automatically. According to Lang’s limited capacity model (Lang 2000) there are three stages to memory, depending on how much mental effort a person reflexively exerts and how much limited mental capacity is available. First, material passes through a short-term store. It is then encoded and, finally, stored. Typically, encoding is assessed using recognition memory measures (such as true/false or multiple choice) and storage is measured using recall measures (such as cued recall). One interesting phenomenon is that getting viewers to work harder at first improves their memory performance, but if they have to work too hard memory performance gets worse. If we choose to watch television, for example, both the nature and the pace of the message are out of the viewer’s control.
The limited capacity model says that while viewing television we must process both the structure and meaning of the message. As a result, several interesting things happen related to memory. Many things in a message can cause a viewer to automatically allocate more processing capacity to a message. Such message features include novel or unexpected information, new information unrelated to the old information, and arousing content, as well as other features. These features initially cause the viewer to mentally work harder and remember more. However, at some point the capacity needed is greater than the capacity available for processing. Tradeoffs occur. Since storing material takes more mental effort than encoding the material, storage tends to suffer first. If the demands are great enough, encoding may also diminish.
Recognition and recall tests of memory ask explicitly if the viewer was aware something was seen or heard. Exposure to information can also influence performance on a variety of tasks that do not refer to the information to be remembered. This apparent memory without awareness has been called implicit memory. Implicit memory is measured using tasks such as word completion or indicating a preference. In some cases there is evidence of implicit memory, but not of explicit memory. For example, brands that were central to the plot of a television show were best remembered using explicit recall and recognition measures. Brands that were not central to the plot were less likely to be explicitly remembered, but were more likely to be selected when given a choice of brands. Similar results were found after children were exposed to messages containing soft drink brands. The children became more likely to select a particular brand after seeing it in a film (Auty & Lewis 2004).
Even under the best conditions, what is retrieved from memory is a complex interaction between the actual memory traces and our judgments and expectations. Memories are not just available or not available. Often we are uncertain about whether we remember something (e.g., did you remember to lock your house this morning?). Our judgments about memory seem to depend not just on the strength of the memory but also on our judgments and motivations. If you live in a high-crime neighborhood you may want to be more certain you remembered to lock your house than if you live in a low-crime neighborhood.
One advantage of recognition measures of memory is that they can be used to mathematically separate the signal-strength aspect of memory from the judgment aspect, using signal detection theory. From correct recognition of true items (hits) and mistaken recognition of false items (false alarms), one can calculate a measure of the strength of the memory (sensitivity) and a measure of judgment about the memory (criterion bias). In some cases what appears to be poor memory may simply represent a more conservative judgment about memory. For example, Shapiro and Fox (2002) found that while it appears that typical information in a story is remembered better over time, that is a consequence of people using a much more conservative criterion judgment for atypical information.
Memory sensitivity for atypical information is actually better than for typical information over time. Signal detection has also been used to show that redundant visuals in television news result in better information discrimination than dissonant visuals, even though that difference doesn’t appear in more conventional recognition memory tests. Also, it has long been known that retrieved memories are shaped by our expectations, and that our recalled memories are a combination of actual memory traces and inferential processes about what we would expect to be in that memory trace. Schemas are mental structures that reflect a person’s knowledge and expectations of the world. Memory retrieval is often contaminated by what we expect to happen.
Context Effects, Arousal, And Accessibility
Along with memories of events, we store the context of those events. That context can be used as a memory retrieval cue and to characterize the memory. The source of a memory appears to be stored with memories of media events (Mares 1996; Shapiro 1991). How well people remember where an event memory came from can influence how those memories are used in making judgments based on those event memories.
Memory, both recognition and recall, appears to be much better for arousing messages than for less arousing messages. Several studies indicate that this may be one explanation for why negative messages are often more memorable: negative messages are usually more arousing. However, arousing messages also increase the allocation of processing resources to those messages. In some cases, the combination of arousal and other message features that increase allocation of processing resources (such as a large number of scene changes) can overload limited capacity and reduce memory for the message.
How easily a memory comes to mind can influence a variety of decision processes. For example, when a public service announcement about HIV made it seem easier to retrieve memories of ways in which HIV is transmitted, participants’ perceptions of their own risk increased. That effect disappears, however, if recovering such a memory is made to seem more difficult (Raghubir & Menon 1998). One can also measure how quickly a memory comes to mind. Samu and colleagues (1999) timed how quickly people associated a product category and a particular brand to test competing advertising strategies.
Future studies are likely to focus less on memory as an outcome of a message and more on the interaction between memory and other mental processes. New methods of measuring memory and complex learning network models of memory are likely to increasingly influence studies in communication.
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