our memory prefers substance to form

To relate a current situation to a past situation, our memory is guided more by the substance than by the form. It is only for want of a better solution that it uses surface indices, according to a study by Geneva and French researchers published in the journal Acta Psychologica.

Our memory organizes our experience according to two main features: the surface features, which group the superficial resemblances of the situations (for example, the places or the people present), and the structural features which characterize the depth of the situation and its problematic.

Ease sought

According to existing literature, individuals tend to favor surface indices when dealing with a situation, said the University of Geneva (UNIGE) in a statement on Friday.

"This is often attributed to the fact that our brain seeks ease when it comes to evocation and that in general the surface of a memory is correlated to its structure," said Emmanuel Sander, professor at the faculty of UNIGE psychology and educational sciences (FPSE), cited in the press release.

Structural features

By analyzing the existing literature, the researchers realized that the work carried out previously was based on situations which did not have in common only surface features, but also part of the structure, and that the participants did not have the knowledge necessary to grasp the background of the situations presented to them.

We wondered if the surface features really dominated the structural features when one situation evoked another.

Lucas Raynal, researcher at CY Cergy Paris Université

"We wondered if the surface features really dominated the structural features when one situation evoked another," explains Lucas Raynal, researcher at CY Cergy Paris University and associate member of the FPSE of UNIGE.

The bottom is more important than the shape

To answer this question, the researchers created six stories that have either surface, structure, or neither (so-called distractor stories).

"Our target story tells the story of a pizza maker, Luigi, who works in a busy place. A second pizza maker, Lorenzo, comes to settle next door, making him a direct competitor. However, his pizzas are not as good. Luigi then gives Lorenzo a piece of manufacturing advice so that his pizzas get better. To thank him, Lorenzo moves his pizzeria to put an end to direct competition ”, specifies Evelyne Clément, professor at CY Cergy Paris University.

Principle of competition

Among the six stories, some emphasize the pizzaïolos, others on the principle of amicable competition and some on neither of these two traits.

In the first experiment, the six stories were read by 81 adult participants, before they were directly confronted with the story of Luigi and Lorenzo. They then had to say to what previous situation they related this story.

Result: 81.5% of the participants chose the story that had the same structure, the principle of competition, against 18.5% for the one sharing the same surface (pizzaïolos) and 0% the distracting stories.

And at school?

This research thus dismantles the received idea that our memory is guided by the principle of ease and that the surface features dominate the evocation. "The human being, in his way of memorizing, is less superficial than what we thought and probably favors structure on the surface," summarizes Professor Sander.

The human being, in his way of memorizing, is less superficial than what we thought and probably favors the structure on the surface

Pr Sander, Professor at the faculty of psychology and educational sciences (FPSE)

The challenge is real in the field of education, according to the researchers. These results show the need to focus on the conceptual aspects of the situations that are addressed in class to allow students to rely on relevant clues, and not to be misled by semblances of similarity, concludes UNIGE.

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