Similarities in structure and essence guide our memory more than surface similarities

All research on memory is fascinating and often relevant to education. In this new study, researchers found that similarities in structure and essence guide our recollections rather than surface similarities. It is only when individuals lack sufficient knowledge that they turn to the surface clues to recollect a situation. So maybe, this study suggests we need to focus on the conceptual aspects of situations. The paper comprises of several studies, with some of them a rather small group of students as participants.

In short:


  • Dissociating surface and structure similarities permits to assess their influence on retrieval.
  • Analogical retrieval is predominantly driven by structural similarity.
  • Surface similarity fails to drive retrieval when separated from structural similarity.
  • Rare occurrence of structural retrievals in previous experiments is misleading.


From the press release:

Our memory organises our experiences based on two main features: surface features, which include superficial similarities between situations (the setting, for instance, or the people present); and structural features, which characterize the depth of the situation and its key issues. The existing literature argues that people tend to favour surface clues when dealing with a given situation. “This is often attributed to the fact that our brain looks for the easiest option when it comes to memory recall, and that in general the surface of a recollection correlates to its structure,” begins Emmanuel Sander, a professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) at UNIGE.

On analysing the existing literature, the researchers realised that earlier work was based on frequent recalls of situations that did not only share surface features but also a part of the structure. They also noticed that participants did not possess the knowledge needed to grasp the deep stucture of the situations presented to them. “We wondered whether the surface features really dominate the structural features when a situation elicits the recollection of another one,” explains Lucas Raynal, a researcher at CY Cergy Paris Université and an FPSE associate member.

Essence more important than form

To solve this problem, the researchers created six narratives that shared the surface, the structure or neither of the two (known as distractors) with a target narrative. “Our target narrative told the story of a pizzaiolo , Luigi, who worked in a busy square. A second pizzaiolo, Lorenzo, set up shop next door in direct competition with Luigi. But Lorenzo’s pizzas weren’t as good as Luigi’s, who gave the newcomer a piece of advice about how to improve the way he made his pizzas. To thank him, Lorenzo moved his pizzeria to put an end to the direct competition,” explains Evelyne Clément, a professor at CY Cergy Paris University. Some of the six stories created as part of the research put the emphasis on the pizzaioli; others emphasised the principle of competition that was amicably resolved; and others still did not highlight either of these features.

In the first experiment, the six stories were read by 81 adult participants before they came face-to-face with the story of Luigi and Lorenzo. They then had to say to what previous situation they related the story. “81.5% of the participants chose the story that had the same structure, i.e. the competition principle, compared to 18.5% for the account that shared the same surface (pizzaioli) and 0% for the distracting stories,” says professor Sander. This indicates a clear predominance for structural features, contrary to the claims made by the existing literature. The researchers now took the experiment a stage further: they presented six stories to other participants once more, but this time the story highlighting the earlier competition principle was accompanied by several stories about pizzaioli (experiment 2). The third and fourth experiment also aimed to confirm the robustness of the results by increasing the number of stories to be remembered and by distracting the participants with activities unrelated to the task during a variable timeframe (5 minutes in experiment 3 and 45 minutes in experiment 4) before the target story was presented. “The results of the four experiments were clear-cut, with around 80% of participants choosing the story with the same structure rather than those that shared the same surface or had no similarity,” points out Lucas Raynal.

And what happens at school?

The research calls into question the received idea that our memory is guided by the principle of the easiest option and that surface features dominate recall. “A human being’s way of remembering is less superficial than was thought, and in all likelihood favours structure over surface,” adds professor Sander. “It’s only out of ignorance that superficial clues will take precedence. This is a real challenge at school, because educational concepts can be opaque when students begin learning, hence the risk is that the surface would be prioritised.” It follows that these results play a fundamental role in education. “It’s a question of highlighting the relevant features for students. In other words, the conceptual aspects of the notions that are taught, helping them categorise the situations that are worked on in class by overlooking the superficial aspects that mislead them,” says professor Clément by way of conclusion.

The latter does remind me of the theory of the importance of identical elements by Thorndike.

Abstract of the study:
In the present study, we tested the assumption that structural similarity overcomes surface similarity in the retrieval of past events, by observing whether structural similarity alone is a better cue than surface similarity alone. To do so, in four story-recall experiments, we provided the participants with multiple source stories and then with a target cue story. This target cue only shared either surface or structural similarity with the source stories. In Experiment 1A, a Superficially Similar Disanalog source story (SSD) and a Superficially Dissimilar Analog source story (SDA) were presented among Superficially Dissimilar Disanalog source stories (SDDs). A soundness rating task was used in Experiment 1B to control the absence of structural similarity among the SSDs presented in Experiment 1A. In Experiment 2, the number of SSDs was increased in the aim to reproduce more ecological conditions. In two further experiments, a five minute (Experiment 3) and a 45 minute (Experiment 4) delay was introduced, and supplementary source stories were presented, in order to make the study more similar to previous story-recall paradigms. The results of the four story-recall experiments support the dominance of structural over surface similarities in analogical retrieval. The role of a structurally-based access regarding the retrieval of Superficially Similar Analogs (SSAs) and SDAs is discussed, as well as the factors underlying the rare occurrence of SDAs retrievals in previous experiments.

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