It’s All About Memory

I recently pubished a post on personal mastery in your current job vs moving up:

Today, I read something that suggests that rather than deliberate practice, your memory capacity is actually the key difference between good and great:

What do you think GovLoopers? Could the hype about memory correct and if so, should that be a deciding factor in who should be targeted for promotion?

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Jeff Ribeira

Personally, I think basing promotions only on intelligence levels and memory capacity would be a terrible mistake. Not only for the inevitable ethical implications, but it’s been my experience/observation that a person’s intelligence on paper simply is not a direct correlation to how valuable they are in an organizational setting. Plus it just seems a bit orwellian for some reason… Intelligence is just one small part of the equation, with many other aspects of an individual factoring in.

Also, this bit intrigues/frustrates me a bit: “The jury’s still out on whether you can improve your general intelligence,” he said. “We hold out hope that cognitive training of some sort may produce these benefits. But we have yet to find the magic bullet.” Perhaps this is my lack of intelligence showing, but is this really true? Seems to me there are plenty of ways to boost one’s mental capacities, but maybe I’m wrong…

Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m screwed…memory feels like it’s been fading for several years already!

I blame it on the fact that I created mental short cuts to get stuff done back in school – I hated when they made me show my work in math because I could figure out the right answer without doing all that scribbling.

And with the Internet and devices that allow me to quickly jot down my thoughts, add a quick bookmark to a site or some other method of quickly indexing information for rapid retrieval later….why do I need to try to remember anything any more?

Can someone tell me my phone number?

Mark Hammer

Having studied the field for a number of years during and prior to my doctoral work, I’ll simply say that the author of the study cited is misled and misleading to some degree.

The reality is that, while there is certainly enough physiological evidence of physical limitations on working memory, and while there are plenty of transitory and incidental obstacles to maximum working memory capacity (ready to draft policy at 6AM? ready to do long division in your head just after you stub your toe?)functionally speaking, practice determines working memory effectiveness and power.

The classic work by DeGroot demonstrates this amply, to my mind. DeGroot studied chess experts and novices, providing them with photos of chess boards and asking them, after a delay, to reconstruct the location of all pieces on the board. The chess experts could easily reconstruct where things had been with great accuracy, compared to the chess novices. DeGroot was able to easily demonstrate that this was NOT any sort of prodigious memory capacity on the part of chess experts, since other memoranda, like word lists and such, showed no differential expert/novice performance. Moreover, when experts were shown images of pieces randomly placed on a board, their memory performance suffered, relative to when they and the novices were shown images of games in progress.

So what’s going on? Basically, the experts, under optimal conditions, had less to remember, or rather less to juggle in working memory when gazing at the image. Where someone like myself would look at the board and think “The little horsey thing is 4 from the left and 3 from the rear, and the salt-shaker kind of thing is 4 rows from the back, near the middle of that row”, the expert looks at it and thinks “Oh…the Hungadunga-vs-Kolomirgoroff 1953 opening gambit!”, and that codes for all the pieces on the board, letting them spend more time thinking about it as opposed to frantically gathering all the little nuggets of info and juggling them.

In effect their practice and familiarity with the game reduces the amount of information they have to juggle in working memory. This is also why despite still being 5 or 6 years of age, eventually a negligible amount of working memory capacity is required to pedal, allowing you to devote the rest of your working memory to steering, chewing gum, talking, etc. It’s also why, despite all manner of compromises to their neurological status, people who are traipsing up death’s sidewalk and dementing can still carry on a conversation and keep track of sentence structure: because they’ve practiced the living daylights out of it their whole life long.

So, yes, working memory capacity measures can often be more predictive of performance than intelligence measures. But if you want to see true cognitive power, get yourself a well-practiced expert. It’s like watching a super-couponer going shopping; they can squeeze unbelievable amounts out of a measly $10 bill.

Mark Hammer

Oh, and Andrew, people in their 20’s commit pretty much the same memory slips that people in their 50’s and 80’s do. Older adults just make a bigger deal out of them, and younger adults tend to excuse them.

There was a terrific little paper from 1980, from a guy at Duke whose name is escaping me at the moment, Herb something, where he asked adults of a variety of age ranges to cite the everyday memory slips they made. It was the same stupidity in every decade:

– standing in front of the fridge wondering what the hell you’re doing there,

– misplaced keys, glasses, wallet, or other commonly used object,

– zip code, phone number, pin number, or some other numerical information,

– appointments, errands to be done

– what you went to the store for,

– whether you actually locked the door, closed the window, turned the oven/tv/computer off, or merely think you did…..

etc., etc.

Carol Davison

We should promote those who collaborate the best to achieve the greatest results. Not those with the best memory. Hitler was a genius, evil but a genius. He systematized murder.

Jay Johnson

Thanks for everyone’s comments.

@Jeff, your statement about Orwellian selection reminds me of the movie Gatica where such decisions were based solely on genetics.

Ashley Fuchs

I knew a guy with an extraordinarily great memory who also had a problem with being a liar, his memory was so great he could easily keep all his lies strait… On the other hand I knew a different guy who had a photographic memory and was an excellent teacher and motivator. It wasn’t the memory that made the second guy great it was his personality and his ability and willingness to work with others.

Mark Hammer

Nah, I don’t think they’re hootsie-tootsying anyone. It’s typical of the sort of tunnel vision many researchers adopt, ignoring the bigger picture. Measures of completely decontextualized working memory ARE pretty predictive, though. BUT they can also be off the mark as well.

One of my favourite examples of how working memory and expertise interact occurred when I was working on a large cognitve aging project for my doctoral supervisor. We were using multiple measures of working memory, in conjunction with other measures, to track cognitive status longitudinally. One of them was what gets referred to as a “number span” task. The person gets read a series of digits, has to add them up, and hold them in mind while being read the next series of digits, and another, and another. At the end of it, you spew out the totals. We went up to 10 series of digits, IIRC (it was 25 years ago). The college students generally did very well and the seniors poorly.

So, one day this guy comes in who is best and most accurately described as a “geezer” rather than “an elderly gentleman”, probably in his late 70’s. On the verbal working memory stuff he does just as poorly as his age-mates, but on the number stuff he kicks royal ass, shaming the college students with his performance, and stunning me. Afterwards I ask him: “Just out of curiosity, what’d you do before you retired?”. “I worked in a stockroom. Why do you ask?”. The guy had spent the better part of his life mentally juggling stock numbers. So while everything else was decliing, this set of skills survived in shining fashion. Practice and expertise let him stretch what he had a proverbial mile.

THAT’S why I stand firmly behind the notion that the causation goes in both directions: basic working memory capacity (whatever its biological derivation) is predictive of overall reasoning, intelligence, and probably job performance, BUT practice and expertise in a given area affords the same “amount” of working memory to be utilized more effectively.

I told the “geezer” anecdote to Canadian aging-and-memory research icon Fergus Craik this past spring and he loved it, and asked if he could use it.

At the risk of blathering on too long about this, one of the current popular notions among aging researchers is that there is a decline in “inhibitory” mechanisms with age. In effect, people become more distractible with age, though the distractions may not necessarily be something an external observer can see. It could be thoughts, it could be that pain in your lower back. Think of it like losing your “carrying ability” with age, because one of your hands is always preoccupied with hitching up your pants or adjusting a hearing aid or holding a cane. The total amount of “memory resources” may be unchanged, but the share of it that is available for active duty at any moment may be reduced.

(Oh, and “hungadunga” is, if I recall correctly, one of the many partners of the same name in a law firm mentioned by Groucho Marx in one of his films.)