Have you ever gotten half-way into a story only to realize that you’ve told this exact tale before, to precisely the person you’re boring with it now? (In fact, you may have already told it to them several times?) According to research published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, losing track of whom you’ve regaled with what stories may have to do with the way our brains process different types of memory. According to researchers Nigel Gopie and Colin M. MacLeod, source memory, or your ability to keep track of which person told you a story, may function more smoothly than destination memory, or your capacity to catalog your own information output, in part because of the direction in which that information is traveling. “Previous research demonstrated that encoding of the external environment is disrupted when actions are performed by oneself rather than by someone else,” the researchers point out.
Yet, while destination memory is important to everyday function in society—if you told a white lie, which people did you tell it to?—little research has been done thus far to explore just how this process differs from other types of memory, and why it may be harder to recall outgoing information. To assess the differences between source and destination memory, the researchers recruited 60 university students. Half were instructed to sit in front of a screen, and to list facts to celebrity portraits as they popped up. The other half listened to facts while admiring the photos of famous people. When later asked to recall which facts went with which faces, the students who’d done the talking fared far worse than those who’d listened—16% worse, to be precise.
In a second experiment with another group of students, they mixed up the facts participants told—one group was instructed to continue recounting random information, while the other told things about themselves (“My zodiac sign is Gemini,” for example). This time around, those who were talking about themselves did far worse than those telling random information, suggesting that “self-focus” might undermine our ability to remember which stories we’ve told to whom, especially if they were about ourselves. “When people focus on themselves, more destination memory errors are made, possibly because fewer encoding resources are available to associate independent pieces of information—such as what one said and to whom one said it,” the researchers explain.
In a third experiment, (with yet another group of subjects), the researchers tested possible ways to improve destination memory, instructing half of the participants to address the celebrity photo by name—for example, “Oprah Winfrey, the United States Postal Service handles 40% of the world’s mail volume”—while the other half merely stated the fact without uttering the famous person’s name. The idea was that stating the name would shift a person’s focus away from him or herself. And, as the researchers hypothesized, shifting attention away from oneself did improve participants’ ability to remember whom they’d told what.
So, what does this mean for you, the next time you’re at a party and about to launch into a well worn tale? You could try the Oprah technique, peppering the story with your friend’s name—”So, Bob, then I saw the seagull swoop down…,” and, “And then, Bob, before I knew it my fishing line was pulled across the crowd!”—but the potential for that to irritate your audience, especially if the story’s already a rerun for them, may outweigh the benefit of any incremental improvement in memory in the future. So next time you get that nagging feeling that you’ve told this one before, rely on the old stand-by, “Stop me if you’ve already heard this…” and then plow straight ahead. Odds are, moments later you’ll be the one nodding and grinning—yet again—at your buddy’s favorite tale.