By Emma Young
Suppose a friend asks you to help them move. When deciding how much time to offer, you can take into account how much you’ve helped that particular friend lately (and how much he might have helped you). But a new paper in Social psychology If that friend is particularly close, you likely have a poorer memory of how much time you spent helping them. You might offer more help to an acquaintance than to an acquaintance, not just because that friend is closer, but because your brain is more fuzzy in distinguishing between a close friend and yourself.
The notion that the closer we are to someone, the less clear the distinction between our mental representations of ourselves and oneself is is supported by various previous studies, including some that we have covered. In the new paper, Pinar Uğurlar from the University of Cologne and colleagues asked three different groups of participants to share a number of theoretical resources (e.g. pizza and bitcoin) between themselves and another person and later to remember how much of each one she gave away.
In the first study, the theoretical recipient was whoever the participants identified as “closest” to them. These participants had also completed a so-called independent self-construction scale. This requires consenting to statements such as “I am a unique person separated from others”. The results showed that those with more self-expression were better able to remember how much pizza, etc., they chose to give away.
In follow-up studies, the team looked for differences in the recall when asking people to reallocate resources to the person who is closest to them or to someone they had only met once. The researchers found that when people interacted (in this hypothetical scenario) with a close friend, their recall was significantly worse than when they interacted with someone they barely knew.
The hypothetical nature of the studies is certainly a caveat. In addition, the team did not directly examine the perceived degrees of overlap between themselves and others or their effects on memory. Nonetheless, the work suggests that closeness “can actually affect people’s memory of their own decisions”.
However, this could have a social benefit. Giving away resources (be it time or food or materials) for the benefit of others creates direct costs for an individual. Blurred distinctions between self and close others could make it easier for a person to make this selfless choice and thus benefit their group – which will benefit them in the long run. As the team suggests, “an incomplete separation of self from others on a purely cognitive level can help groups resolve social dilemmas.”
– Interpersonal closeness affects the decision-making memory.
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles