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We’re Better at Remembering Facebook Statuses Than Book Lines

Turns out, the average person is far more likely to remember a Facebook status than they are a painstakingly edited sentence from a book

smithsonian.com

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One of your friends hates her job, another is excited for a concert, and a third just had some really, really delicious pancakes. You know this because they told you on Facebook. If asked how those friends were doing, you’d probably remember those statuses pretty easily. But do you remember a single line of Moby Dick? Probably not. Turns out, the average person is far more likely to remember a Facebook status than they are a painstakingly edited sentence from a book.

Science NOW writes about a curious finding that psychologists at UC San Diego stumbled upon by accident. The researchers originally intended to use Facebook posts as a tool to invoke feelings. But when they found that the posts were particularly memorable, they dug in further:

They gathered 200 Facebook posts from the accounts of undergraduate research assistants, such as “Bc sometimes it makes me wonder,” “The library is a place to study, not to talk on your phone,” and the comment about clean bed linen. They also randomly selected 200 sentences from recently published books, gathered from free text on Amazon.com. Sentences included, “Underneath the mass of facial hair beamed a large smile,” and “Even honor had its limits.” The scientists stripped the posts and book excerpts of their context, selected 100 from each source, and asked 32 college undergraduates to study and memorize the selected 100 phrases from either Facebook or books, assigning 16 students to each group. Then they sat the volunteers in front of a computer screen and, one at a time, displayed either a sentence the volunteer had studied or a sentence that was new to the volunteer. The team asked the subjects if they had seen each before, and how sure they were about it.

Facebook posts were one-and-a-half times as memorable as the book sentences, the scientists report this week in Memory & Cognition. The team also ran a memory test of human faces, and the Facebook posts turned out to be more than twice as memorable as those.

Okay, but maybe the Facebook statuses were easier to remember because they were short and easy—each contained one simple thought. “I’m going to have pancakes” is far more basic than “Underneath the mass of facial hair beamed a large smile.” But the researchers thought of that, and did another test to try and control for it. Here’s Science NOW again:

When the researchers tested CNN news headlines (“Sixth person dies after stage collapse at Indiana State Fair”), against random sentences from news articles (“He was arrested Thursday and was taken before federal investigators for interrogation.”), and comments responding to news articles (“No talent hack, I should feed him to the lizards.”), they found that readers’ comments were more memorable than headlines, which in turn stuck better in subjects’ memories than mid-story sentences. Entertainment news was also easier to remember than breaking news, but the comments reigned supreme. So it seemed the gossipy tone and completeness could not fully account for the memorability of Facebook posts and online comments, the team reports.

So there’s something specifically about comments, Tweets and status updates—unfiltered blurbs of everyday people—that we remember. Live Science writes:

“One could view the past five thousand years of painstaking, careful writing as the anomaly,” UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld, who was involved in the study, said in a statement. “Modern technologies allow written language to return more closely to the casual, personal style of pre-literate communication. And this is the style that resonates, and is remembered.”

Which might make you think twice before you post that next update to Facebook.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The World’s Closest International Relationships, According to Facebook
How A Facebook Experiment Increased Real World Election Turnout

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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