Collective Memory

Collective memory refers to the shared pool of information held in the memories of two or more members of a group. Both the English phrase and its French equivalent appeared in various contexts in the second half of the nineteenth century. The philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs analyzed and advanced the concept in his book La mémoire collective (Paris, 1950). Collective memory can be shared, passed on and constructed by groups both small (e.g., a board of directors) and large (e.g., American culture). In many ways, collective memory parallels individual memory (e.g., better recall for pictures than for words), but also exhibits some key differences and features (e.g., cross-cueing).


Memory Groups remember more than individuals, as groups are able to draw on the knowledge and experience (i.e., memories) of all individuals present. An example of this is an article written by Norman Brown that incorporated a few experiments testing individual inaccuracies. The first experiment had 15 subjects estimate the month and year of 36 random events some political and non-political. The events ranged from January 1976 to May 1983. They were instructed to think out loud and would be prompted if they fell silent for more than a couple seconds. One prediction made during the experiment was that participants would “frequently justify their responses with reference to one or more auxiliary facts. This experiment yielded that only accurate responses concerning the correct month and year happened 8% of the time. Most of the participants (78%) used auxiliary facts to date events. The second experiment used 40 different events 20 being political and 20 being non-political. The 24 four year undergraduates from the University of Chicago were asked to tell if the event happened during the Carter or Reagan presidency. Then they were asked if the event happened while they were in high school or college. As a side experiment participants were given a reward for answering each question correctly in less than 10 seconds. This trail was done twice for each person. Obviously the second time answers were more accurate and faster. Participants as a whole were able to answer political events faster when deciding which president was in office and were able to answer non-political events faster with high school or college. The third experiment consisted of participants using free-association and a knowledge assessment phase. The 30 students were asked to write down the first current event they could think of related to the shown high knowledge political event, low knowledge political event, high knowledge non-political event, and the low knowledge non-political event. High knowledge events had higher same narrative responses (44%) from the participants. Another example would be members of a group planning a tactical strike against another country are likely to come to a better decision when they work together, rather than alone. One member may be knowledgeable about the terrain and morale of the troops in the country where the strike is planned, while another may be knowledgeable about the home country’s weaponry, and another may be knowledgeable about the home country’s military morale. Akin to this example, when students are permitted to take examinations as a group, they usually outperform individuals, as each member of the group is knowledgeable in different areas.

Information Gathering Groups are also able to acquire more information than individuals. As individuals often have widely differing experiences, backgrounds, personalities, etc., each can acquire a unique set of information that can be contributed to a group discussion.

Features of collective memory

Free-riding and Social loafing Group members do not remember as much as they have the capacity to remember, as group members engage in free-riding and social loafing. When group members realize - be it implicitly or explicitly - that others will aid in the recall of information, they will put less effort into processing and storing the information. In some situations, these inadequacies in collective memory may be so great that groups are unable to recall previously-made decisions without the aid of a written record (group minutes).

Collaborative Inhibition When groups collaborate to share information, they experience collaborative inhibition, a decrease in performance compared to the memory performance of individuals. Basden, Basden, Bryner, and Thomas (1997) provided evidence that retrieval interference underlies collaborative inhibition, as hearing other members’ thoughts and discussion about the topic at hand interferes with one’s own organization of thoughts and impairs memory. Additionally, motivational mechanisms may also account for this memory deficit in groups due to social loafing. Explanations for this include:

  1. Personal accountability is diminished, as individual contributions are less recognizable in a group. 2. There is a perceived dispensabiltiy of effort – individuals believe that their contribution will not make a difference in the end. 3. Individuals may try to create an equity of effort, in that they will try to match the effort exerted by other group members. By nature this output is low, however, as each member must wait for everyone to take their turn. 4. Diffusion of responsibility: individuals think they are less accountable for group behaviour versus their own behaviour.

However, it has been found that collective inhibition may be due to sources other than social loafing, as offering a monetary incentive have been evidenced to fail to produce an increase in memory for groups. Further evidence from this study suggest something other than social loafing is at work, as reducing evaluation apprehension – the focus on one’s performance amongst other people – assisted in individuals’ memories but did not produce a gain in memory for groups.Personal accountability – drawing the attention to one’s own performance and contribution in a group – also did not reduce collaborative inhibition. Therefore, group members’ motivation to overcome the interference of group recall cannot be achieved by several motivational factors.

Despite the problem of collaborative inhibition, working in groups may benefit an individuals’ memory in the long run, as group discussion exposes one to many different ideas over time. Working alone initially prior to collaboration seems to be the optimal way to increase memory.

Cross-cueing Information exchange among group members often helps individuals to remember things that they would not have remembered had they been working alone. In other words, the information provided by Person A may ‘cue’ memories in Person B. This phenomenon results in enhanced recall.

Transactive memory Members of a group often specialize, to a greater or lesser degree, in different areas. Transactive memory refers to the process by which information that must be remembered is distributed (either explicitly or implicitly) to members of the group who can either be relied upon to provide the information when it is needed. For example, the weapons expert in a group may remember the specifications of a new semi-automatic rifle, while the scout may remember the layout of trenches at enemy lines

Collective memory and memorialization

The collective memory of a nation is represented in part by the memorials it chooses to erect. Public memory is enshrined in memorials from the newly opened Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Whatever a nation chooses to memorialize in physical monument, or perhaps more significantly, what not to memorialize, is an indicator of the collective memory.

Collective memory is also sustained through a continuous production of representational forms. In our media age - and maybe particularly during the last decade of increasing digitization - this generates a flow of, and production of, second hand memories (see e.g. James E Young). Particular narratives and images are reproduced and reframed, yet also questioned and contested through new images and so forth. Collective memory today differs much from the collective memories of an oral culture, where no printing technique or transportation contributed to the production of imagined communities (see Benedict Anderson) where we come to share a sense of heritage and commonality with many human beings we have never met - as in the manner a citizen may feel a sort of ‘kinship’ with people of his nation, region or city.

The concept of collective memory, initially developed by Halbwachs, has been explored and expanded from various angles - a few of these are introduced below.

James E. Young has introduced the notion of ‘collected memory’ (opposed to collective memory), marking memory’s inherently fragmented, collected and individual character, while Jan Assmann develops the notion of ‘communicative memory’, a variety of collective memory based on everyday communication. This form of memory is similar to the exchanges in an oral culture or the memories collected (and made collective) through oral history. As another subform of collective memories Assmann mentions forms detached from the everyday, it can be particular materialized and fixed points as, e.g. texts and monuments.

The theory of collective memory was also discussed by ex-Hiroshima resident and atomic bomb survivor, Kiyoshi Tanimoto in his tour of the United States as an attempt to rally support and funding for the reconstruction of his Memorial Methodist Church in Hiroshima. He theorized that the use of the atomic bomb had forever been added to the world’s collective memory and would serve in the future as a warning against such devices. See John Hersey’s Hiroshima novel.

The idea was also discussed more recently in The Celestine Prophecy and subsequent novels written by James Redfield as a continuing process leading to the eventual trancendance of this plane of existence. The idea that a futuristic development of the collective unconscious and collective memories of society allowing for a medium with which one can transcend ones existence is an idea expressed in certain variations of new age religions.

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