On the Psychology of Collective Memory and Group Membership

The 2016 US Presidential campaign and its aftermath have energized international dialogue on the prominence and proliferation of ideological echo chambers, fake news, and so-called “alternative facts.” We are in a moment that is forcing us to face pressing questions about the social nature of facts: how they come about and who feels entitled to ratify or question them.

NSSR Alumnus Alin Coman (photo credit: Princeton University)

To address some of these questions, Research Matters spoke with Alin Coman, a doctoral alumnus of the Psychology Department at The New School for Social Research, and currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Coman’s research — initially developed as a graduate student in the lab of William Hirst (the Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology at NSSR) – focuses on the way that social contexts affect our ability to create and recall memories, both as individuals and as groups. Recent political events in the United States and around the world have brought new urgency to Coman’s investigation into how politics and group dynamics can shape and reshape our sense of the past.

Coman was first exposed to the field of collective memory as an undergraduate psychology student at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. At the same time, Professor Hirst was conducting research on collective memory while advising Romanian psychology departments through a rebuilding process that followed their abolition during the communist authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu (1965-1989). After completing his undergraduate degree in Romania, Coman followed Hirst back to The New School for Social Research for graduate work.

Under Hirst’s supervision, Coman developed an empirical approach to the study of collective memory in communities of individuals, investigating how our social interactions influence the way that we create, retain, and recall memories. As Coman recently wrote: “Psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong.”

It is this issue that Coman explores in his current work at Princeton.

Take a recent study completed in conjunction with Hirst and fellow NSSR Professor Emanuele Castano. The study asked American participants to confront two sets of stories about soldiers committing acts of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group of participants read that it was the American soldiers committing acts of violence and abuse, while another group — reading about the same acts — were told that they were committed by Iraqi soldiers. “It turns out there’s a huge difference in terms of the cognitive processes individuals undertake as they’re listening to somebody describing these atrocities,” Coman explained. The interpretation of this information is influenced by the group membership of the person exposed to the stories.

This phenomenon extends to the process of remembering and forgetting. According to Coman, when we hear information from people we perceive to be within our group, these sources are, “more likely to reinforce memories that are already encoded.” He adds that they can also “induce forgetting of memories that are related to those that they hear from an [outgroup] source.” Information relayed by people inside one’s own group will “be prioritized in the cognitive system.” This leads to a bias in terms of what gets remembered and what is left to wear away from our memories.

Promoting Psychological Research at The New School

From weight loss interventions and parental decisions to the psychology of alien abduction, the latest issue of The New School Psychology Bulletin runs a gamut of recent graduate student research in psychology.

Founded in 2003, this student-run and peer-reviewed publication at The New School for Social Research has become an important forum for psychological work produced by emerging scholars in the field. It also serves as a valuable training ground in the practice of writing, submitting, reviewing, and editing journal articles.

“This is a learning experience, not only for the people who submit, but also for the reviewers and for the editors,” said Jessica Engelbrecht, who served with students Mariah HallBilsback and Emily Maple on the current three-member editorial board. The board is comprised of doctoral students in the Department of Psychology, but The Bulletin’s contributors come from departments across the United States and around the world. Whereas other peer-reviewed journals similarly welcome the work of young scholars — these are often called “learning journals” in the field — the Bulletin is one of only two graduate psychology journals run entirely for and by students.

According to the editors, students drove the publication from the beginning. They identified a need to develop facility with the entire publication process, while also creating a space to test new ideas and showcase the best new research to broad audiences outside of The New School. “Within the Psychology Department, students just felt that there was a need for it,” said HallBilsback. This training helps students to develop ideas, while also building diverse professional and scholarly skills. These include not just teaching, writing, and conducting rigorous research, but also presenting one’s ideas in a compelling way, corresponding with academics across sub-fields, developing networks, and participating actively in the review and editorial process.

Reviewers are welcome to stay on for multiple years, though the editorial team changes yearly. The Bulletin has a faculty advisor, presently Department Chair Howard Steele, who provides guidance and mentorship for the editorial board, allowing the student editors autonomy to discharge the daily responsibilities of running the journal. The working relationship of the current board has been a productive one, according to Maple. She added, “The editors from the year before pick three people who work really well together and it just so happens that we all like doing our own things and that they complement one another.”

Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.

 

NSSR psychologists publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Two different studies from Department of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) earlier this year. The first, by post-doctoral fellow and Eugene Lang College alumnus Steven Frenda, illustrates the impact of sleep deprivation in interrogations of suspects. The second, by associate professor Jeremy Ginges, and post-doctoral fellow Hammad Sheikh, examines the connection between religious belief and intergroup relations.

Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions

Frenda is the lead author of Sleep deprivation and false confessions (PNAS, 2016), which finds that sleep-deprived people are far more likely to sign false confessions than those who are rested. Past research has already pointed to sleep deprivation interfering with people’s ability to think clearly, plan actions, and anticipate risk. With this in mind, Frenda believes that “innocent suspects, in particular, really need these skills and abilities intact in order to navigate a stressful interrogation in a way that protects their interests.” This study, according to Frenda, now gives direct evidence to demonstrate the role that sleep deprivation plays in the outcome of intense interrogation.

As the lead investigator, Frenda adapted a procedure that other researchers have used to study false confessions in a laboratory setting: observing participants’ completion of a series of computer tasks. In this case, participants were warned that pressing the Escape key on the keyboard would result in data loss. The following day, researchers asked the participants to sign statements falsely accusing them of having pressed the Escape key. After the first request, 18% of the rested participants and 50% of the sleep deprived participants agreed to sign the statement. After both requests, 39% of the rested participants and 68% of the sleep-deprived participants had signed.

Two short measures included in the study significantly predicted the likelihood of signing the statement: one was a simple self-report measure of sleepiness, and the other was a measure of impulsive decision-making. Frenda says that one implication of this finding is that in real-life scenarios, it may be possible to identify people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.

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