Two-Headed Memories: Collaboration gives recall lift to elderly

Older adults often find that their memories betray them. A team of Canadian psychologists, led by Michael Ross of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, offers this advice to elderly individuals with memory concerns: Don’t go it alone.

Talking about recent memories with someone else, such as a spouse, works like a cognitive vacuum cleaner, in Ross’ view. It sucks up many mistakes that litter memory, leaving behind a relatively clean core of accurately recalled information.

“Collaboration could help to reduce the frequency of older people’s false recall in many everyday contexts,” Ross says. Few researchers have examined collaborative remembering (SN: 9/13/97, p. 174).

Ross and his coworkers devised two memory tasks for 59 married couples, ages 68 to 78. The researchers randomly assigned 29 couples to collaborate on their choices and 30 to deliberate individually.

The first task involved list memory. Each couple jointly circled 25 items for purchase in a 70-item grocery catalog. About an hour later, participants were taken to a supermarket where they attempted to remember items from their shopping lists and put them into a cart. After returning home, volunteers again tried to recall items on their shopping lists.

On the second task, participants tried to name 14 highlighted but unlabeled landmarks on a map of their community.

Individuals correctly recalled about two or three more shopping items and landmarks than couples did, the researchers report in the September Applied Cognitive Psychology. However, couples usually made four or five fewer memory errors on these tasks than individuals did.

Collaborators challenged each other’s mistakes, Ross theorizes. Consistent with that scenario, individuals working alone rarely picked the same wrong grocery items or made the same landmark errors as their spouses did.

Not surprisingly, when working individually, people with either lots of shopping experience or community familiarity remembered more material on these respective tasks than their less-knowledgeable spouses did. Yet the “experts” and “nonexperts” committed the same number of memory errors, Ross says.

Experts in each area drew on a rich store of memories that generated both hits and misses, he proposes. So, even for an expert, a collaborator can help weed out mistakes.

Collaboration represents a “manageable and realistic solution to a memory problem that gets increasingly onerous as we age,” remarks psychologist William von Hippel of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Fears of forgetfulness contribute to memory errors by the elderly, von Hippel suggests. In Ross’ shopping study, for instance, such concerns might have impelled individuals to grab any plausible or familiar item.

Although people commonly shop with a list, the new study applies to many memory challenges faced by older people, comments psychologist D. Stephen Lindsay of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Consider having to remember to stop by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, check your blood pressure while there, and then get cash at the bank before getting a haircut.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.