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The Memory Problem That Makes Life Difficult for Introverts

New research on social memory shows how being an introvert can lower yours.

Key Points:

  • Remembering who said what, and to whom, is an important but oft-ignored part of building and maintaining social relationships.
  • Introverts, who may already feel at a social disadvantage, appear to struggle with social memory more than extraverts, a new study finds.
  • Though extraversion has been associated with better memory in general, the study suggests that the extraverted brain may privilege social information for memory storage.
  • Introverts may be able to strengthen their social memory by purposely paying more attention to social interactions.

It’s frustrating, and possibly damaging to relationships, to come up short when you’re exercising your social memory. Perhaps a friend told you where COVID-19 vaccines were now being made available. You rush as quickly as you can to the nearest online resource to see if you can sign up. This took you much longer than you anticipated it would and by the time you get it done, you forgot to thank this friend. Indeed, one day later, you can’t even remember who gave you this vital piece of information so important to your health. Now you’ve not thanked this friend who is probably quite miffed that you neglected to perform this social nicety.

It’s also potentially awkward to forget with whom you shared your own piece of information. A relative asks you for a recipe for that delicious chili you served at a small family gathering. It’s a recipe you obtained a number of years ago (you can’t remember from whom, of course!) and although you think you actually did share it, it turns out that you never did. Your relative could rightfully be very annoyed with you for making a promise that you didn’t keep.

Are Memory and Personality Linked?

As common as these memory slips can be, it’s possible that you’ve managed to avoid them. It turns out that it may not be memory ability in play at all here, but personality. According to Mohamad El Haj and colleagues (2021) of Nantes Université Université d`Angers, there are two separate distinct types of social memory, each of which could be related to introversion/extraversion. As they point out, “successful communication depends, among other factors, on our ability to remember: (1) which colleague, friend, or family member told us about a specific piece of information (i.e., source memory); and (2) with whom we shared that information (i.e., destination memory)” (p. 1).

These two facets of memory, the French authors propose, should be better in extraverts than introverts. The research that backs up this prediction goes back decades, with studies consistently showing that extraverts, in general, perform better on memory tasks in the lab such as remembering a list of random words They also get higher scores when they’re asked to remember pairs of related words, or what’s known as associative memory. Extraverts even outperform introverts in tests of prospective memory, which is when you have to remember to perform an upcoming task or get to a meeting or appointment. What if, for example, you forgot when you’re scheduled for that all-important COVID-19 vaccine?

You might think that because of their tendency toward thoughtfulness and pondering their inner lives, introverts would actually have superior memory. After all, they’re not as focused on what’s going on around them, and so incoming information should be better encoded for later recall. However, it’s actually the opposite according to the studies referred to by El Haj et al. Extraverts, they state, “tend to monitor their social interactions” (p. 2). Introverts may actually pay less attention to their interactions with others, then, because they’re not as tuned in to the information exchanged in those interactions.

The Nantes research team took these ideas into the lab to find out whether, as they predicted, introverts would show poorer performance on tasks specifically designed to measure both source and destination memory. The sample consisted of 52 students (27 women and 25 men) averaging 22 years old. Prior to entering the experimental situation, the researchers asked participants to remember a list of 16 words after a 20-second intervening distraction task. The average among this young adult group was 12 words, suggesting that their short-term memory was quite acute.

The experimental task itself consisted of presenting participants with a set of 48 French proverbs (e.g. “The pen is mightier than the sword”) along with 48 celebrity faces. In 24 of those pairings, the researchers measured source memory by counting the number of proverb-face pairs the students could recall after being instructed to imagine that the celebrity was telling them the proverb. The destination memory task involved asking participants to imagine that the tables were reversed and they were telling the celebrity the proverb. In between these two tasks, participants completed an interpolation task to clear the memory “palate” in which they read strings of 3-digit numbers aloud for one minute.

To measure introversion/extraversion, the French research team administered a brief questionnaire asking them to rate their own personalities on the following attributes using a 1 to 5 scale. High scores reflected high extraversion in this scale:

  1. Talkative
  2. Reserved (reversed)
  3. Full of energy
  4. Generates a lot of enthusiasm
  5. Quiet (reversed)
  6. Has an assertive personality
  7. Sometimes shy (reversed)
  8. Outgoing, sociable

Among the study participants, the average was 3.15 (per item) on this scale, with most people scoring between 1.9 and 4.5. You can see where you stand on this scale, which provides a rough estimate of your own introversion/extraversion.

Why Extraverts Excel at Memory Tasks

Turning now to the findings, the authors reported that, in general, participants had poorer source than destination memory. In part, this can be explained by the well-known “self-generation effect” in memory research. In other words, you’ll remember something you said better than you’ll remember something that another person told you.

In the test of the personality-memory hypothesis, the findings also showed clearly that introverts received lower scores on both types of celebrity-proverb tasks than did extraverts. The authors provided the data plots which, interestingly, showed that there were more perfect scores on the memory task for those high on extraversion, and more very poor scores for those with low extraversion scores (i.e., introverts).

Although, as the authors point out, their findings support the idea that extraverts “privilege processing of social information,” this doesn’t mean that introverts are antisocial. Instead, the findings suggest that people high in introversion have fewer social interactions (and hence less practice) and also may need more time to “think and talk” (p. 5).

Can Introverts Improve Their Social Memory?

Armed with this study’s information, what can you do if you’re an introvert with these weaknesses in social memory? First, consider using the experimental task developed by the authors as a guide to help you sharpen your social memory. Construct your own lists of face-information pairings similar to the proverb-celebrity task. See if you can up your score as you go through each list.

Second, you can use your own emails and text messages to test (without peeking) whether you can recall who shared which information with you. To test your destination memory, look at your old sent messages and see if you recall to whom you sent them. Keep score as you go through each trial of, for example, 20 previous texts or messages.

Third, pay more attention to your interactions with people as information, a promise, or just plain chit-chat is exchanged. If you try to get those interactions over with as soon as possible so you can return to your inner world, it's likely you'll fail to encode the material you'll need to retrieve.

To sum up, being an introvert may present a challenge to you when it comes to your memory involving people. Recognizing that you can improve this vital skill is the first step toward gaining greater fulfillment from the interactions with the people in your life.

Facebook image: Sam Wordley/Shutterstock


El Haj, M., Allain, P., De Bont, L., & Ndobo, A. (2021). Personality and social memory: High source and destination memory in extroverts. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.

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