Tag Archives: memory

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Curating our Memories

If we had the obligations of institutions like museums, all of us would probably have to periodically amend the landmark narratives in our lives that we have incorrectly remembered.

There are no shortage of examples of museums and archives that have been forced to correct their narratives about past events.  Was a painting in a gallery actually the property of a Jewish family who had to forfeit it to the Third Reich? Is that tribal dress portrayed in an exhibit of an indigenous group really accurate, given recent and revised histories?  Do our textbook descriptions of the American Constitution adequately treat the deference to slave-owning that historians and progressives now see in some of its provisions, including the electoral college?

Remember the Lerner and Lowe song in Gigi sung by an older couple?

He: We dined with friends.
She: We ate alone.
He:  A tenor sang.
She: A baritone.
He: Ah, yes, I remember it well. That dazzling April moon.
She: There was none; and the month was June.
He: That’s right. That’s right.
She: It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do.

On big and little matters, we tend to curate our own histories with details that still seem clear. One personal example: I was certain I witnessed the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a television set in a basement playroom on Quebec Street in Denver. I can still picture the black and white images of the horrors unfolding on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton Hotel, vivid as if they were yesterday. The “clear” mental image stays because it marks the sinking feeling that must come to most young Americans when they first encounter a national trauma that pushes aside a simpler faith in national invincibility. The storms of American political and cultural life are an unintended national birthright, forcing amendments to exceptionalist narratives that finally must give way.

But I digress. The problem with my memory is that I could not have been in my parent’s basement in Denver. In 1968 I was living in Sacramento California, where almost no one has a basement. And I was a senior in college, not the higher schooler I remember.  The dates are irrefutable markers. If we functioned like public institutions, all of us would probably have to rework the landmark events in our lives that we have curated as mental exhibits. This amounts to the same kind of historical refurbishment that now happens regularly, using the tenets of critical race theory, the #Metoo movement, and other redefining perspectives. At institutions like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the creation of amended narratives must now go on all of the time.

I have not checked, but I wonder if the National Constitution Center In Philadelphia has tempered its assessments of the founding document to reckon with the last President’s trashing of what seemed like well-established norms. The emoluments clause prohibiting the use of the office to make money is a case in point. Similarly, writing history texts for grade-schoolers has become an occupation that now leaves some school boards and publishers figuratively bloodied. The question of who gets to tell the stories of our collective past has turned into its own kind of battlefield.

Psychologically, we are not well-positioned to abandon inaccurate narratives. As has been much discussed through the recent election and its aftermath, Americans are like most people who resist new corrective narratives that bump up next to older inaccurate ones. As noted elsewhere, the tension between the two creates an uncomfortable form of dissonance we would like to avoid. And so we often take the avoidance route: only considering evidence that confirms what we already believe.

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‘I Must Have Missed It.’

When you find yourself reminding a friend of what you told them yesterday, you are in the familiar territory of recalling something that mattered more to you than them. 

Occasionally an idea in communication comes along that provokes the realization that it would not be possible to live without it. Good models can help us see what is right in front of us.  So it is with a set of observations that fall under the name of Elaboration-Likelihood Model.  The name might be a little off-putting.  But as a framework for insights about how messages are likely to be received by others, the model is golden.

The work of Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, the model proposes that we think about the reception of messages as coming via one of two general pathways.  Messages that are “centrally processed” are, by definition, the kinds that trigger a whole set of critical responses.  These are claims and ideas readers or listeners think about.  Their engagement means that they are more inclined to test these assertions against what they know.  Their beliefs or behaviors have been put in play and may change.

The model assumes that serious attempts at advocacy or involvement must gain a strong foothold in our consciousness. Those that don’t—those messages that get scant attention—are said to be “peripherally processed.”  A message like an advertisement or a casual request from another may wash over us quickly. We are not especially interested or motivated to hang on every word.  And, as you would guess, the message is not likely to produce significant or lasting change.  It has not created an impression that sticks.

                                        Elaboration Likelihood Theory

All of this may seem more or less obvious.  But considering how much a person or audience cares is a worthwhile question. It asks if you can trigger enough attention and interest to have a chance at getting change.  As labels, “Peripheral” and “Central Processing” are good ‘top-of-mind’ concepts.

The model’s relevance increases every year as Americans recede into ever-deeper waters of message overload. We simply weren’t made to attend to what is now a routine exposure to many hundreds of messages every day.  We may deceive ourselves into believing that we can multi-task and accurately consume all that it thrown at us.  We can’t.  Truth to be told, we’re not good multitaskers. Peripheral processing means that we will miss too much to feel bound by a specific request.

Watch a skilled grade school teacher handle a class and you will see a survivor who knows that active listening and central processing are essential and hard won.  It takes time, repeated attempts, a lot of eye contact and follow up. When we get older we are our own bad actors, staring at phones, drifting into other thoughts and ideas, and distracted by internal chatter that will not allow us to focus.

  Another person’s attention is essential.  But it can’t be easily given.

When you find yourself saying to a friend our spouse “I mentioned it yesterday; I’m sure I said it” we are likely recalling something that mattered much more to us than the person who was supposed to be listening.  And, while we can get frustrated at the other’s inattention, we also need to cut them the slack by recognizing that communicating with a peripheral processor is a bit like shouting in the forest.  The people close by may look like they have heard us.  The Elaboration Likelihood model reminds us to have some doubts.

Consider two recommendations.  Repeat what you deem important.  A tactful rewording of the message  that you want to stick may help get the reaction you want.  In addition, give the peripheral-processing “forgetter” some slack.  To attend to every message that comes to us is not possible.  If you tried to do it, you would need a mental health intervention. To be sure, another person’s attention may be expected.  But the the requirements for sanity in an over-communicated society mean that it can’t be easily given.