This profile originally appeared on Research Matters
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.
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.
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.