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Jul 19 2013

Why we tell the same stories to the same people

We have all experienced occasions when a family member or friend tells us a story that they have told us before. Usually we pretend it is new to us because it seems somehow rude to tell them that they are repeating themselves. Also it is likely that we have done the same thing to others and so we also benefit from this act of politeness. I know that I have done so and only realized what I was doing later or half way through the story and, in the latter case, felt obliged to quickly complete it. This is because we all have a repertoire of stories that we draw upon repeatedly in conversations with others.

The problem is keeping track of whom we have told it to before. But that is clearly not easy to do even though, as Nigel Gopie and Colin M. MacLeod write in a paper titled Destination Memory: Stop Me if I’ve Told You This Before, it can be quite important.

Remembering to whom one has told things not only can help one avoid social embarrassment, but also may be critical in some situations. For example, supervisors need to remember to whom they told specific information or delegated particular responsibilities so that they may assess progress and accurately gauge employees’ workloads, and liars need to keep track of the information that they have told to particular people to avoid getting caught telling incongruent stories. Remembering to whom one has told things also is necessary for facilitating everyday interactions, such as conversations with friends. People can assume a common ground and continue where they left off only if they remember what they told to different friends (cf. the given-new contract—Haviland & Clark, 1974). Consequently, in daily interactions, people need to remember not only who told them things, or the source of information, but also to whom they told things, or the destination of information.

What is absolutely the most embarrassing is hearing a story from someone and them telling them that same story later, not remembering that they were the source. But fortunately this happens rarely and for a good reason, because we are better at remembering who told us something than to whom we have told something. Gopie and MacLeod say that when it comes to stories, we have two distinct kinds of memories: incoming information is stored in source memory (i.e., remembering who told us a story and in what context) while the things we say iis stored in destination memory (recalling to whom and in what context we told the story). It turns out that destination memory is more unreliable than source memory. In other words, your friend is more likely to remember that you are the one who told this story before than you are to remember that you told this story to them.

Why is this?

In the case of incoming information, rich associative links are formed between an event and its environment. In contrast, output events are less strongly integrated with their context because people perceive their own behavior as belonging more to themselves than to their environment. Consequently, for output events, people associate their behavior with their internal mental processes rather than with the environment.

In other words, when we listen to someone in the course of paying attention to what they are saying, we are also paying attention to them and the environment and integrating all of that information. In contrast, when we are speaking, we are focusing on our own internal thought processes in recalling the idea and verbalizing it, and less on what is going on out there.

The authors find that we can improve our destination memory by weaving that information into what we are saying. When we are telling someone a story, we should try and focus more on the person to whom we are telling it. The researchers found that using that person’s name as a prelude (“Max, I read a story …” or “I remember, Susan, when I was in high school …”) helped improve destination memory.

Some of you will recognize that that is the same strategy that is recommended to people to help them remember the names of people they have just been introduced to. I am terrible at this. I can’t count the number of times that I have been introduced to someone and almost immediately forgotten their name. Repeating their name immediately afterwards in the course of the conversation definitely helps. But sometimes I forget to do that. Now I have learned to overcome my embarrassment and say quite directly, “I am really sorry but what is your name again?”

names

(From xkcd.)

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Jeez, when one is of a certain age it’s hard enough to remember the story in the first place, let alone to whom one might have told it.

  2. 2
    Chiroptera

    If it’s a good story, I don’t mind hearing it again. If the story isn’t so good, then I usually don’t mind hearing again anyway, especially since this social convention allows me to hear the good ones over. I mean, some stories really are worth repetition, and the best ones are worthy of regular recitals by the particular bard who tells it.

  3. 3
    Johnny Vector

    My advisor in grad school had a number of fun and fascinating stories, and a complete inability to remember which students he had told which ones (compounded by the fact that any group of people in the lab was a mix of newer and older students, so some had probably not heard any given story). We all decided that when you had heard all his stories three times, you were allowed to graduate.

    More on point, the explanation makes a lot of sense. I’ll see if I can remember to help myself remember who I’ve told what.

  4. 4
    Trickster Goddess

    There is also the fact that you usually hear a particular story from only one person, so that’s easier to remember than the multiple different people you’ve told a story to.

  5. 5
    smrnda

    I tend to do this, but I never suspect I’m being original the same way that I know asking someone “how are your kids? How is work? How is school?” isn’t an original question and won’t yield an original answer.

    I think the ‘you said that before!’ reaction mistakes the purpose of communication, as we all tend to repeat ourselves all the time. I had someone point this out to me, then I just told him “yeah, and you’ve told me the same stories multiple times. I didn’t see anything strange with that.” What shocked me was that he hadn’t realized it, and that he thought it was strange that I hadn’t pointed it out before. I just thought everybody did this and it wasn’t anything until that point, and I was about 20 then.

  6. 6
    Mano Singham

    Only the people very close to me (e.g., my children) tell me if I am repeating a story, so maybe saying so is not a common practice. I now assume that I will repeat them without knowing. The only time I am sure that I am not if it is a very new story.

  1. 7
    Exercise pills, weight, large viruses and other topics « blueollie

    [...] one who told you the story to begin with? The latter happens sometimes but the former acts more. Here is one reason why. In a nutshell: when you are telling a story, you are spending more mentally energy focusing on [...]

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