How group work can be harmful to memory

by L&D14 Sep 2016
"Collaborative remembering" is traditionally used in many different settings.

For instance, interview panels might jointly recall candidates' answers before deciding who to hire. While in a classroom learning environment, people might work together to revise course content before a test.

Now, a new study by psychologists from the University of Liverpool and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), reveals that collaborating in a group to remember information can be harmful.

The research involved statistically analysing 64 earlier collaborative remembering studies. It found that groups recall less than their individual members would if they were working alone.

The study first compared the recall of collaborative groups to the collective recall of an equivalent number of individuals.

For instance, if a collaborative group consisted of four people, their recall was compared to that of four individuals who worked alone but whose recall was combined.

It found that the collaborative group recall was consistently lower than pooled individual recall. This effect is known as “collaborative inhibition”.

The study suggests collaborative inhibition occurs as group members disrupt each other's "retrieval strategies" when recalling together.

Dr Craig Thorley of the University of Liverpool’s Department of Psychological Sciences, said “collaborative group members develop their own preferred retrieval strategies for recalling information”.

“For example, Person A may prefer to recall information in the order it was learned but Person B may prefer to recall it in the reverse order,” he said.

“Importantly, recall is greatest when people can use their own preferred retrieval strategies.

"During collaboration, members hear each other recall information using competing retrieval strategies and their preferred strategies become disrupted.

“This results in each group member underperforming and the group as a whole suffers. Individuals who work alone can use their preferred retrieval strategies without this disruption so recall more."

A number of factors were also found to influence the extent to which collaborative inhibition occurs. One of these findings was collaboration is more harmful to larger groups than smaller groups.

Another was that friends and family members are more effective at working together than strangers.

Dr Thorley said: "Smaller groups perform better than larger groups as they contain fewer competing (disruptive) retrieval strategies. Friends and family members perform better than strangers as they tend to develop complementary (and not competing) retrieval strategies."

The study also compared the recall of people who had previously collaborated in a group to the recall of people who had previously worked alone. It was found that collaborating in a group increased "later individual recall".

Dr Stéphanie Marion of the UOIT's Faculty of Social Science and Humanities said: "We believe that this occurs as working in a group means people are re-exposed to things they may have forgotten and this boosts their memory later on.

“One of the important consequences of this is that it suggests getting people to work together to remember something (e.g., students revising together) is beneficial for individual learning."

The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.

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