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The Memories of Others Can Be Contagious

October 4, 2012

College Office
Michelle Meade. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Michelle L. Meade, associate professor of psychology, examines the impact of social factors on individual memory. When remembering an event, we rely on our own internal representation of the event, and we may also turn to others for additional information about the event through sharing stories and reminiscing. However, others’ memories are not always accurate and may include exaggeration or errors. When other people make errors, do we reject them or do we incorporate them into our own memories?

To study this question in the lab, participants and confederates take turns recalling items from previously studied scenes. A confederate is an actor who participates in a psychological experiment pretending to be a subject but in actuality is working for the researcher. The confederate suggests several items during this collaboration that had not been presented in the scenes. On a subsequent individual recall test, participants often incorporate the confederates’ errors into their individual memory, a process termed the social contagion of memory. 

“Some of our recent research findings have also revealed important age-related differences in social contagion of memory,” said Meade. “Participants are more likely to incorporate erroneous items suggested by young adults and relatively unlikely to incorporate misleading suggestions from older adult confederates.”

Student co-authors on this research include former MSU graduate students Sara Davis and Katya Numbers and former MSU undergraduate students Chase Ladd and Vladimir Perga. Their findings were recently presented as an invited talk at the International Conference on Memory, a prestigious conference that is held just once every 5 years. 

Updated: 06/19/2013