We forget a face, but not a Facebook post

U. WARWICK (UK) — Chatty updates on Facebook are much easier to remember than faces or carefully worded sentences.

A new study sheds light on how our memories favor natural, spontaneous writing over polished, edited content—and could have wider implications for the worlds of education, communications, and advertising.

The researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Memory and Cognition, tested memory for text taken from anonymous Facebook updates, stripped of images and removed from the context of Facebook, and compared it to memory for sentences picked at random from books, and also to human faces.

The researchers found that in the first memory test, participants’ memory for Facebook posts was about one and a half times their memory for sentences from books.


In a second memory test, participants’ memory for Facebook posts was almost two and a half times as strong as for faces.

“We were really surprised when we saw just how much stronger memory for Facebook posts was compared to other types of stimuli,” says lead author Laura Mickes of the University of Warwick’s psychology department. “These kinds of gaps in performance are on a scale similar to the differences between amnesiacs and people with healthy memory.”

Mind-ready format

A further set of experiments delved into the reasons behind this. It seems that, as one might expect, Facebook updates are easier to memorize as they are usually stand-alone bits of information that tend to be gossipy in nature.

However, the study suggests that another, more general phenomenon, is also at play. That is, our minds may better take in, store, and bring forth information gained from online posts because they are in what the researchers call “mind-ready” formats—they are spontaneous, unedited, and closer to natural speech.

These features seem to give them a special memorability, with similar results being found for Twitter posts as well as comments under online news articles.

Nicholas Christenfeld and Christine Harris, professors at the University of California, San Diego, were also part of the research team.

“Our findings might not seem so surprising when one considers how important both memory and the social world have been for survival over humans’ ancestral history,” says Harris.

“We learn about rewards and threats from others. So it makes sense that our minds would be tuned to be particularly attentive to the activities and thoughts of people and to remember the information conveyed by them.”

Our language capacity did not evolve to process carefully edited and polished text, notes Christenfeld.

“One could view the past five thousand years of painstaking, careful writing as the anomaly. 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.”

‘Casual and unedited’

Mickes adds: “Facebook is updated roughly 30 million times an hour so it’s easy to dismiss it as full of mundane, trivial bits of information that we will instantly forget as soon as we read them.

“But our study turns that view on its head, and by doing so gives us a really useful glimpse into the kinds of information we’re hardwired to remember.

“Writing that is easy and quick to generate is also easy to remember—the more casual and unedited, the more ‘mind-ready’ it is.

“Knowing this could help in the design of better educational tools as well as offering useful insights for communications or advertising.

“Of course we’re not suggesting textbooks written entirely in tweets, nor should editors be rendered useless, but textbook writers or lecturers using PowerPoint could certainly benefit from using more natural speech to get information across.

“And outside these settings, at the very least maybe we should take more care about what we post on Facebook as it seems those posts might just be remembered for a long time.”

Source: University of Warwick