When to Rely On Transactive Memory

Say you encounter a new piece of information. This piece of information could be as simple as a phone number or a major work that is central to your interests. Should you commit this information to your personal memory, or should rely upon external, transactive memory? This question has arisen in educational circles with respect to the multiplication tables. Now that calculators are ubiquitous, is there still a need to memorize the multiplication tables? The need for this can be argued from two points of view. One has to do with the standard for knowing. If something is important for understanding arithmetic and advanced mathematics, should not this information be resident in memory? If the answer is “yes”, then this needs to be committed to memory.

The second point of view is one of convenience. Will one always have a calculator available? Will it be worth the time and effort in finding a calculator to perform multiplication? What about potential emergencies when it might be a matter of life or death, but no calculator was available? If convenience is a factor, that alone might be justification for committing the multiplication tables to memory.

We are confronted with this problem everyday. Suppose you encounter a phone number. Do you need to commit this number to memory? There are mnemonic techniques that facilitate the memory for these numbers (see the blog posts “Remembering Numbers,” “More on Remembering Numbers,”, “Three Digit Numbers,” and “Remembering Even Larger Numbers.”). But these techniques require mental effort. Should you extend this mental effort? Not surprisingly the answer is, “It depends.”

Wayne Gray and his colleagues have developed a hypothesis, the soft constraints hypothesis, to address this question.1 This hypothesis says that your choice will be based upon a rational cost benefit analysis. In other words, if this phone number is to be used only once, you will most likely not commit it to personal memory, but will rely upon transactive memory, a piece of paper for example. However, if you are going to use this number frequently and cannot rely upon speed dial (a type of transactive memory), you will commit it to memory. They present extensive and thorough evidence supporting the notion that this is, in general, how people behave. However, people do not always behave in this rational manner. In my personal experience there are times when I have relied way too much on external supports when it would have been more efficient to commit the information to my personal memory.

At other times, however, the criterion will concern how deeply you need to understand the information. Do you only need to bookmark or tag where to find it should you need it in the future? Although you need the information, it is still not central to your primary interest and can get by with knowing where to locate the information. Or is the information central to your understanding and needs to be committed to your personal memory. You would not usually commit a major piece of work central to your interests to verbatim memory, but you would commit its essence and its major points to personal memory. The number and depth of those points would depend upon the importance of the particular work.

1Gray, W. D., Sims, C. R., Fu, W-T, Schoelles, M. J. (2006). The Soft Constraints Hypothesis: A Rational Analysis
Approach to Resource Allocation for Interactive Behavior. Psychological Review, 113, 461-482.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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