Are two heads better than one?

You’ve likely heard the saying “two heads are better than one”, and may have been told that working in a group is better for ideas and creativity. But could working in groups actually hinder your ability to remember things? A recent study found that when given a memory task, people’s ability to remember was worse in groups than it was individually.

The research, which examined findings from previous studies, found that participants in groups often conflicted with each other during the recall process, hindering their ability to remember things. For example, if one participant’s memorization method was first to last, and another’s method was last to first, those competing methods conflicted with each other, resulting in worse results overall.

The researchers hypothesized the issue is that recall specifically is detrimentally affected when performed as a group activity (not as an individual activity). Interestingly, they also found that after working in groups while group recall was worse, individual recall was improved.

“Each person has their own way of remembering things,” says Dr. Darren Gitelman, neurologist at Advocate Medical Group. “When we attempt to recall things, our preferred method can become interrupted by another’s preferred method and can result in us either misremembering or reconsidering what we remembered. That isn’t something that an individual has to deal with outside of a group setting.”

The study also found that the groups’ makeup did play a factor into the results of the participants. Smaller groups were more effective than larger groups. Additionally, groups of family and friends were more effective than groups of strangers.

“When you are familiar with the thought process of others and potentially even trust the other people you work with, you may be more confident in sharing what you remember,” says Dr. Gitelman. “So in some ways, the study does need a bit more work.”

If groups are harmful to recall, what can students and peers who often work in groups for projects do to effectively meet their goals and deadlines?  Dr. Gitelman suggests the following:

  • Write things down. It is always easier to recall with prompts that can help you remember the information you are seeking out.
  • Talk constructively to find the answer. Arguing isn’t going to get you very far. Work collaboratively and listen to each other to try and piece together the correct answer – it may not always work, but it will promote a better atmosphere for the group.
  • Assign roles. If each person is responsible for remembering certain things, they can be the “go-to” for particular topics.

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