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Remembering What You Read on the Internet Is Harder than You Think

A new study says we remember Facebook posts better than faces, or stuff from books. Other research says we may not remember Facebook well either. So, which is it?
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A new study released by researchers at UC San Diego and the University of Warwick this week suggests that people remember Facebook posts astoundingly better than they remember other people’s faces or information from books—respectively one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times better. As Motherboard’s Ben Richmond noted in an article earlier this week, interpreting the researchers’ analysis:

It’s not totally your fault. It’s just the way our minds are wired, and also how we write Facebook posts. Not only is a Facebook status gossipy and generally standing alone—rather a sentence of a book, which is surrounded by actual context—the study suggests that our minds can take in and store the posts because the slangy, hastily written post is likely closer to speech.


Researchers also suggested that we’re hard-wired to care about socially-relevant information. “We learn about rewards and threats from others,” co-author and UCSD psychology professor, Christine Harris, said. “So it makes sense that our minds would be tuned to be particularly attentive to the activities and thoughts of people and to remember the information conveyed by them.”

It’s an exceptionally interesting lab finding. But in the real world, is that always the case?

For the UCSD / Warwick study, researchers were thinking about language and social evolution. To better test their hypotheses, they stripped the Facebook messages from their original contexts, presenting them in plain text. That ignores, however, the way we receive that information. A lot of other research suggests that the fact we get those Facebook posts on Facebook may have a profoundly prohibitive effect on our ability to retain that information in real life.

In his 2010 book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr explains that our short-term memory comprises a specific type of memory called “working memory.” Citing research by Australian educational psychologist, John Sweller, among others, Carr describes working memory as “play(ing) an instrumental role in the transfer of information into long-term memory and hence in the creation of our personal store of knowledge.” It forms, he continues, “the contents of our consciousness at any given moment.”


Since Princeton psychologist George Miller’s famous 1956 paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” scientists have proposed that this so-called “working memory” has its limits. That “magical number seven,” Miller’s research suggested, was the number of informational elements a brain could hold at one time, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. What’s more, those elements disappear quickly unless we effectively hold onto them somehow—“unless,” Miller says, “we are able to refresh them by rehearsal.”

As Carr notes, more recent studies suggest that number may be way too high. Sweller’s research, for example, indicates that “two to four” may be a lot more accurate, and it's probably closer to two.

Write it down! Write it down! 

That's a clear benefit in some situations. It’s part of how we’re able to focus on one conversation in a crowd and not all the others—at least not consciously in a way we can readily recall. But it may hinder us when it comes to consuming our information online. Getting information on the internet—like the Facebook post—may overload that working memory, making it harder to retain and comprehend things.

Carr explains:

The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load.” When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information…we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory… Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise.


One of those experiments, conducted in 2001 by Canadian researchers, David Miall and Teresa Dobson, asked two groups of readers to read a fictional story (“The Demon Lover,” by Elizabeth Bowen). One group was given a version of the story in plain text. The other group was given a version loaded with hyperlinks.

Those reading hyperlinked version took longer to read the story. But they also understood it less. Only about one-in-ten who read the plain text reported problems following the story, compared to three-quarters of the hypertext readers. Their comments afterward were less precise and accurate with regard to the details of the story. The Canadian researchers tried again it with a shorter, simpler story and got the same results.

Numerous studies like it have been performed since then, with variations. In 2005, psychologists with Carleton University performed a meta-study of the research at that time and concluded that, although not all the data stacked up against hypertext, most of it did. “The increased demands of decision-making and visual processing in hypertext,” they argued, “impaired reading performance.”

In other words, when we read text with hyperlinks, like this, we consciously make a decision each time we encounter one, even if that decision is not to click. That distracts us, fills up our “cognitive load.”

Those experiments were grossly simplified, as controlled experiments of their ilk must be. When is the last time you read an article online and were only presented with text and hyperlinks? Probably around 1995. Now, whether we’re on Facebook or the websites of more august publications, we’re bombarded with choices the brain is forced to consider on some level.


To read this New Yorker article about Lance Armstrong, for example, I have to scroll past two ads, two menu bars—each offering nine separate options to take me elsewhere on the site—multiple graphics, another menu, links to several writers’ Twitter feeds, and widgets for Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ before I get to the main text. To the right are more menus for “most popular,” “most e-mailed,” etc., to either check out or ignore. And more ads. There’s more to wrangle as you make your way down, but you get the picture.

Wait, what was I writing about?

In this context, the UCSD study, though very interesting, really only tells us about language and social hard-wiring. It tells us about Facebook insofar as it underscores the chattiness, gossip and all around banality it often provokes. But it may just as well be a story about Twitter or the proverbial water cooler. With all the separate, simultaneous stimulations Facebook offers, I wonder if we remember much about what we read there in real life at all. If I’m not directly interacting in a conversation, I know I don’t.

And with that, let’s leave it with Tina Fey. Not because she has anything to say here about memory. But because she reminds us that most of the stuff we say on sites like Twitter is boring anyway.