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Memory susceptible to herd behavior due to social influences

Inaccurate memories can sometimes be blamed on social pressures and interpersonal influences. Due to “herd behavior” of the brain, one may alter recollections of past events after hearing accounts or opinions provided by other people in order to fit the consensus of the group. Two types of memory conformity reflect different cognitive processes, but appear the same to an observer. In private conformity, an individual’s memory seems to be actually altered. When the social aspect of the situation is removed, the person will still insist on the false memory, suggesting that the memory has been permanently changed. In the second type, called public conformity, individuals choose to outwardly comply to agree with others, but still inwardly maintain their original memory of the situation.

In a two-week experiment, 30 adults first watched a documentary in groups of 5, then were asked to complete a memory test. Days later, they were asked to complete another test after being shown answers they were led to believe were given by their four fellow participants, but were actually generated randomly. A week later, the participants were told the answers they were given previously were not in fact the answers of their peers, but were randomly generated answers. The participants were asked to take the test again and reverted to their original correct answer 59.2% of the time, but maintained erroneous answers 40.8% of the time. In the control group tested without social manipulation, only 15% gave wrong answers.

By being susceptible to group-think, social influences such as false propaganda or advertising can affect someone’s judgment in advertising campaigns or political campaigns, and situations such as eye-witness testimonies can end up being inaccurate. However, memory conformity also serves an adaptive purpose, as social learning can often be more efficient than individual learning, and humans may be predisposed to trust the judgment of a group over the judgment of themselves.


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