As a student, you probably used a few tricks to boost your ability to remember key information: flash cards, mnemonic devices, and perhaps you'd tap some friends to study together in a group. That last strategy is probably one you still use today when you pull together your team for a meeting or brainstorming session. But it turns out, it may not be as effective as you think: New research shows that working in groups might do more harm than good for your memory--at least some of the time.
That's according to a theory called the "retrieval strategy disruption hypothesis." The hypothesis states that trying to recall information with the help of a group disrupts your own go-to method of retrieving information, which means you recall less information than usual. Researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology recently analyzed 64 studies that dealt with group recall, to see if they could find evidence of this "collaborative inhibition."
Their results, recently published in Psychological Bulletin, found that among the 64 studies, groups of people did remember less than their individual members would if working alone. The meta-analysis only looked at studies that compared the recall ability of groups that collaborated on memory tasks to the pooled recall ability of an equivalent number of individuals. Previous studies, the researchers explained, have come to the opposite conclusion, that groups do tend to outperform individuals on memory tasks because prior experiments showed group members helping each other answer questions individuals may not have known on their own. But this more recent study sought to answer a different question: do individual group members perform to their full potential when they collaborate?
The results seem to suggest that people perform better and remember more when they work alone. However, the size and composition of the group had a lot to do with how much individuals were affected by collaborative inhibition.
"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," Craig Thorley, one of the study's two lead researchers, explained in a press release.
To be sure, this is just one study. The researchers also did another meta-analysis of 22 studies on post-collaborative memory, which found that working in a group can boost an individual's ability to recall information a second time when they have to do so on their own later. This may be because talking things through with other people gives them a chance to re-remember a piece of information they had forgotten.
Ultimately, the study provides yet another reason why it's important to understand the different kinds of strategies your employees use to think through problems and process information. Say that you are leading a post-mortem on a brainstorming session. You might prefer to recall information chronologically, while another person in the room finds it easier to recall information in reverse chronological order. Thus, it's important to organize meetings and discussions in a way that allows everyone to process information in their own way.