“We need to talk”—a common solution to diverse problems. The power of conversation has never been underestimated. Treaties between great kings, famous speeches by presidents, marriage proposals, classroom discussions, and so on—social interaction has proved its worth time and again. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are all master manipulators. But did you know this manipulation is way more powerful than we could have imagined? We are talking alter-your-memories powerful.
Let’s paint a picture. Michael, Zoe, Macy, and Josh meet for dinner at a local pizza place. While waiting for their food to arrive, they talk about an actor there they recognized, the soccer finale on TV, and a couple at a neighboring table who couldn’t pacify their toddler daughter. And the rest of the evening continues.
When the group reunites a week later, they recall their pizza meeting. The following may happen, and not exclusively.
1. Collaborative Inhibition
The group starts pitching in details of the evening as each one remembers it. Zoe chips in details about the food they ordered and how the table they sat at kept rocking (the way she remembered it). However, Michael is way more talkative and keeps mentioning the quarterly scores, yellow cards, and missed goals of the soccer match. This causes Zoe to subconsciously alter the focus of her memory. She now, too, associates that day more with the soccer match and not the food or the table.
Memories that we share with others are often influenced by the more dominating or convincing of the lot. The entire group collectively ‘learns’ to narrate the same story with details highlighted in the discussion, neglecting individual differences of memory.
2. Shared Forgetting
Michael may be so talkative and dominating in the conversation that he does not allow Zoe to talk about the memory as she remembers it. By suppressing her expression, Michael may alter Zoe’s memory such that she forgets about the details she had given more importance to. By way of silence, she may forget what she ordered at all or that the table rocked.
By preventing someone from recalling and reciting a memory as he or she knows it, we can suppress their version of a memory to the point of forgetting it. This is a useful tool in psychotherapy of patients who have undergone traumatic life experiences.
3. Thought Contamination
Michael may forget about the couple with their daughter and instead remember it as a single mother with her son. Being quite the smooth talker, the rest of the group is influenced by his version and accept it to be true. Zoe’s memory, too, gets tainted with this altered piece of information that she now believes is true.
Much like gossip and rumors where we believe word that goes around without any verification, false facts can be introduced in memories through repetition. If one person says they saw a ghost in a haunted house, it won’t be long before others, too, believe they saw ghosts there (even if it was just the wind).
4. Doubt Implantation
Zoe meets her cousins over the weekend and tells them about the actor she saw at the pizza place. Disbelievingly they say “No way!” They start supplying gossip-driven information about how that actor was out of the country shooting for a movie that week. Even though Zoe clearly remembers him there, she begins to question her memory.
Self-confidence is a rare quality. It doesn’t take much to make us second guess ourselves or our memories of past experiences. By others questioning what we recall, we begin to wonder if we fabricated a particular detail or not.
The concept of a collective memory is not surprising. Considering the importance of social networking in our day-to-day lives, it is easy for us to accept it as a natural consequence of community. Yes, it can be used to manipulate people for the wrong reasons like providing false testimony in the court of law, but it also helps build stronger bonds between people as they collectively remember good times and forget bad ones.