In a recent study in Experimental Psychology, the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation over valid information was examined, especially in the context of how it aligns with individual pre-existing beliefs. Central to this investigation was the concept of “directed forgetting” — the ability to intentionally forget information when prompted.
Political polarization has been on the rise, and many people are wondering why we seem to be living in two different realities. To better understand this phenomenon, scientists have turned their attention to memory, a fundamental cognitive process. Past research has shown that the directed forgetting effect is often diminished or nullified for emotionally charged items, suggesting that emotional stimuli, especially those with negative connotations, are harder to intentionally forget.
The current research sought to understand how effective prompts are at making people forget politically charged information that either aligns or does not align with their beliefs. To explore this, researchers recruited 360 volunteers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online workforce that performed an item-method directed forgetting paradigm. These participants represented a broad range of political affiliations, with some leaning liberal and others conservative. To measure their political orientation, participants rated themselves on a scale from very liberal to very conservative.
The researchers then presented the participants with a series of images, each featuring a picture of either Donald Trump or Joe Biden, along with a word across their faces. Importantly, half of the images were followed by the instruction “remember,” while the other half were followed by the instruction “forget.”
Participants were told they would later be tested on their ability to remember which president appeared with each word for the images followed by the “remember” instruction. However, they would not be tested on the word/face pairings in images followed by the “forget” instructions.
The images were designed to be politically charged, with some word/face pairings congruent with a participant’s political orientation (e.g., Trump with negative words for liberals) and others incongruent (e.g., Trump with positive words for liberals). This allowed the researchers to assess how political congruence influenced memory.
After watching the slideshow, participants completed a 1-minute filler task and then received instructions for a recognition memory test. During this test, they were presented with all 36 words from the slideshow and asked to indicate which president’s face appeared with each word. Additionally, participants answered questions about their level of confidence in their answers and whether they believed each word accurately described the president they remembered it being paired with.
The researchers found that participants were more likely to remember word/face pairings that were followed by the “remember” instruction compared to those followed by the “forget” instruction, in line with previous research on the “directed forgetting effect.” This suggests that our memory is influenced by instructions to remember or forget information.
Importantly, the findings indicated a stronger inclination to remember and recognize stimuli congruent with one’s political beliefs, even resisting prompts to forget such information. This pattern was seen in both conservative and liberal participants. However, conservatives showed a slightly stronger tendency, known as confirmation bias.
“The present results provide reason to be pessimistic regarding attempts at controlling confirmation biases in politically motivated memory,” the authors of the study wrote. “Interventions such as fact-checks or, more similarly to the [direct forgetting] paradigm, admonitions to simply forget politically congruent (mis)information or stimuli are likely to have relatively small impacts against our confirmation biases in terms of selecting sources of information, believing information, remembering information, and having confidence in our memory of such information, particularly when we are exposed to such a large amount of information daily.”
The authors proposed that the reinforcement of pre-existing beliefs, the habit of focusing on familiar information, and the natural tendency to repeatedly rehearse ideas that confirm our views, can be potential reasons for the observed behavior. However, considering the simplistic nature of the study’s stimuli and its online format, there’s a need for deeper research into the underlying mechanisms driving the selective memory of politically congruent information.
Future research could delve deeper into the long-term effects of memory biases in a politically charged environment. Understanding how these biases influence our beliefs, decisions, and ultimately, our democracy, is crucial. Moreover, exploring strategies to mitigate the impact of memory biases on political discourse could help bridge the political divides in our society.
The study, “(A)symmetries in Memory and Directed Forgetting of Political Stimuli“, was authored by Andrew Franks, Hajime Otani, and Gavin T. Roupe.