Collaborative Inhibition: How Group Work Harms Memory

Collaborating in a group to remember information can actually harm recall, according to new research from the University of Liverpool. The study, which was conducted by psychologists from both Liverpool and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), analysed 64 earlier studies on collaborative memory and provides the “first systematic investigation into the costs and benefits of collaborative remembering.”

Dr Craig Thorley of Liverpool and Dr Stéphanie Marion of Ontario, who led the study, first compared the recall of collaborative groups to the pooled recall of an equivalent number of individuals. 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. Collaborative group recall was “consistently lower than pooled individual recall.” This effect is known as collaborative inhibition and is well-documented by prior research.

In 2013, for example, psychologists at Western Washington University discovered that, when recalling lists of categorised words, “individuals’ idiosyncratic retrieval strategies are disrupted by hearing the contributions of others.” They sampled from fewer categories, therefore recalling fewer words, and were compelled to recall words later rather than earlier in the retrieval process, which reduced the total number of words recalled.

A study from 2014 found that collaborative inhibition even applies to spatial memory capacity, not just traditional memory stimuli like word lists. When participants were told to study a specific layout of objects and then asked to reconstruct that layout from memory, collaborative pairs’ results were less accurate than the combined results of individuals.

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

Thorley and Marion also found that collaboration is more harmful to larger groups than to smaller groups, and that friends and family members are more effective at working together than strangers:

“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.”

But group work does offer some benefits to recall: The researchers also found that collaborative remembering boosts later individual learning, meaning people who previously recall in a group remember more than those who do not.

“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,” Marion says. “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.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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