On the Psychology of Collective Memory and Group Membership

A key notion underlying many of Coman’s findings is that memory is susceptible to influence. “People need little prompting to conform to majority opinion,” Coman said. “At the cognitive level, participants’ memories change to fall in line with the majority social view.” In other words, what counts as the majority social view depends on the size of the group we’re focusing on, which itself depends on the desire of a given individual to want to be seen as a member of the group. This is true for groups of many sizes–from the family unit to groups as large as the nation. Each social grouping exerts its own level of influence, pulling individuals associated with it closer to its own narrative center of gravity.

Perhaps most significant, changes in memory formation and retrieval processes are not evidence of lying in order to fit in. Coman instead argues that changes in cognitive processes reveal that memories are actually changing. He refers to this phenomenon as “mnemonic conformity.” One might differently emphasize events that have happened, depending on one’s surrounding social group. Similarly, people are more likely to encode information – or record the memories – repeated by in-group peers, and less likely to do so when same information is repeated by those in the out-group. Indeed, the desire to conform and commune with a target group undergirds cognitive encoding and memory recall.

The pressure to conform can underwrite the need to forget or omit events from the historical record. In the case of “collective forgetting,” such as the disputed status of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, Coman finds an illustration of the way social conformity selects for either memorialization or oblivion. These “omissions” can be top-down and enforced by the state, or bottom-up and occurring through informal channels and civil society. “What’s critical when it comes to memory conformity,” Coman suggests, “is that the socially shared encoding, retrieval, and forgetting are circumscribed by the motivational forces that are at play when communicating with another individual.”

With different motivations, that is, “there will be different cognitive processes.” This can create something like a conformity feedback loop, in which we discount the beliefs that are not validated by our target in-group, meaning that group distinctions—and their corresponding narratives—are constantly reinforced at the micro level. Of course, this doesn’t mean people cannot change their minds; it just means it’s more difficult to do so than one might assume.

Regardless of the level at which these cognitive processes unfold, the implications for politics and public discourse are profound. Group membership, and even desired group membership, can shape memory formation. For Coman, concern about the division of the United States into several group-thinking echo chambers misses how central and inbuilt these dynamics are in memory formation. While online platforms and new digital media may have made more easily quantifiable the extent to which we think in “bubbles,” his research suggests that these are merely the most visible manifestations of deeply ingrained biases.

Coman argues that what echo chambers and fake news really reveal are the patterns of trust and group membership at work in society. We are likelier to believe factually suspect news when it comes from inside our group, or the group to which we wish to belong, or when it validates our dislike of an out-group. The prevalence of fake news and inadequate sourcing also evinces a desire to believe that the people in one’s own group are the people who have the authentic insight—information that is not known or acknowledged by the public authorities and media.

Departing slightly from collective memory, the motivation to connect with a desired group and to be “in the know” can help shed light on what makes conspiracy theories compelling. In exploring conspiratorial ideation Coman conducted experiments to investigate what happens when the tendency to make meaning of the world meets a need to feel part of a group. He said: “What we’re showing is that if people feel socially excluded then they are more likely to engage in making sense of the situation they find themselves in. They give too much meaning where there is no meaning. And this is why they start endorsing conspiracy theories.” In other words, experimental results suggest that conspiracy theories gain traction because of a need to make sense of one’s own exclusion from a group, or the exclusion of a group from a larger collective

Whether we speak of conspiracy theories, the repetition of group narratives, or the inability to properly remember historical events, Coman’s work investigates the social foundations of cognitive processes related to memory. The current political climate is defined by a crisis of social authority: who gets to make ratify facts, memories, and histories — and who gets to undercut them. Coman’s research represents an important step towards elucidating the complex dynamics that underlie the psychology of trust, belonging, and social authority in our individual and collective thinking.

Lucas Ballestin is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. His dissertation is on psychoanalytic theories of political ideology in the 20th and 21st Centuries.