Does your relationship make your memory better? Let’s talk transactive memory.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share a post about one of my favorite types of memory: transactive memory.

Transactive memory is the process of storing some of our memories in other people’s memories. It often occurs when people work closely together. In a way, this phenomenon allows us to remember more than we ever could and helps to strengthen social bonds. For instance, instead of remembering where we keep some items in the house, Alex just remembers that I know where everything is in the kitchen. When he needs to retrieve that information, he simply accesses it by asking me, “Where is the peanut butter?” I, in turn, always ask Alex to call out our frequent flier numbers and passwords to obscure accounts.

Transactive memory was first proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985. In particular, Wegner references the collectively stored information between two people who have a close relationship. He showed that romantically-related couples were better at organically memorizing a list of words than two randomly paired individuals [1].

“Memory performance of 118 individuals who had been in close dating relationships for at least 3 months was studied. For a memory task ostensibly to be performed by pairs, some Ss (subjects) were paired with their partners and some were paired with an opposite-sex partner from another couple. For some pairs a memory structure was assigned (e.g., 1 partner should remember food items, another should remember history items, etc.), whereas for others no structure was mentioned. Pairs studied together without communication, and recall was tested in individuals. Memory performance of the natural pairs was better than that of impromptu pairs without assigned structure, whereas the performance of natural pairs was inferior to that of impromptu pairs when structure was assigned.”

The theory is that within these natural pairs, each individual knows the other’s cognition and knowledge domain, as well as the best ways to help remind their partner of what they’ve memorized. How cool is that?!

Have you experienced transactive memory? Who do you rely on to augment your memory?

[1] Wegner, Daniel M., Ralph Erber, and Paula Raymond. “Transactive Memory in Close Relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 61, no. 6 (1991): 923–29.