Recollecting trivial and sometimes dull Facebook posts is easier than recalling the same information in a book. It also takes less effort to remember posted patter than someone’s face, according to new research.
The result could be due to the colloquial and largely spontaneous nature of Facebook posts. Whereas books and newspapers typically are combed over by fact-checkers and carefully rewritten by editors, Facebook posts tend to be free flowing and more closely resemble speech. “It’s a new way of thinking about memory,” says John Wixted, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the research. “Our minds are naturally prepared to encode what is naturally produced.”
If memories are the product of evolution, then the ability to remember socially derived conversations may have provided an advantage that helped early humans survive, he adds.
The study involved three different experiments with a sample that largely included undergraduate females and controlled for such factors as the use of emoticons, variations in character size and emotional content. What the research team found didn’t make sense—at first.
Laura Mickes, a cognitive psychologist at U.C. San Diego and lead author of the study, says colleagues in her department were amazed by the consistency of the results. “To our surprise the microblogs, the Facebook posts, are much more memorable than one would expect,” Mickes says. “People mostly think they’re mundane and would be easily forgotten.”
Even accounting for associative thinking—such as, “that is something my friend Emily would post”—the social networking site still had a pronounced effect on the extent to which information was remembered by study subjects. Facebook’s advantage over books and faces is on the same scale as the advantage that the average person has over the memory-impaired, Mickes wrote in the January 2013 Memory & Cognition. Both Mickes and Wixted agree that additional experiments are needed before these findings can be applied broadly, largely due to the lack of diversity among the study subjects.
Still, the implications are profound. Marketing firms could use Facebook-like advertisements to increase brand recognition. Teachers, too, might incorporate shorter, more colloquial sentences on study guides and in textbooks to raise test scores. The applications could be extensive: “I think there are implications for the way we teach, for how we advertise, how we generally communicate,” Mickes says. “There are already professors who are into tech who have incorporated social media into their classrooms.”
According to the study, Facebook users in total post more than 30 million times per hour. Whether it’s easier on the brain, that’s a lot to remember.