Project P9

How interpersonal communication affects communicators' memory: An analysis of cognitive and motivational processes

In this project we provide a differentiated analysis of the cognitive processes underlying the effects of interpersonal communication on communicators' memory for the communication topic.

Communicators’ adaptation (tuning) of messages to their audience’s attitude toward a topic can bias their subsequent memory. Imagine that member A of a team tunes her message about a newcomer’s behaviors toward the attitude of member B (the audience). The audience-tuning effect on memory occurs when A’s later recall of the newcomer’s behavior is evaluatively biased in the same direction as her message. Some progress has been made in explaining the effect, primarily by conceptualizing it as the communicators’ creation of a shared reality with their audience (Echterhoff & Higgins, 2017). The project examines, for the first time, underlying cognitive processes, specifically the accessibility of trait-related (semantic) and behavioral (episodic trace) information about the target person. To this end, we draw on the Relevance of a Representation account (Eitam & Higgins, 2010). By this account, the cognitive accessibility of information is driven by its motivational truth relevance, which is afforded by shared-reality creation. By including communication about the self, we also study the influence of self-enhancing motivation. Thus, we address key aims of the FOR regarding the role of episodic memory traces, semantic information, the self, and social interactions in the retrieval of complex experiences relevant to everyday life.

In Part I, 6 experiments will employ measures tapping the accessibility of trait-related and behavioral information. When participants create a shared reality with their audience, trait information and behavioral information consistent (vs. inconsistent) with the audience’s attitude should be more accessible. This pattern should be weakened when message production is prevented (Experiments 1 & 2) or when audience tuning is driven by non-shared-reality goals such as obtaining a reward (Experiments 3 & 4). We also examine whether the accessibility of behavioral information depends on the activation of trait-level representations (Experiment 4) and whether it is affected by post-communication changes in trait-level truth relevance (Experiments 5 & 6). In Part II, we explore conditions under which self-enhancing motivation overrules effects of shared-reality creation. In 3 experiments, participants communicate under high (vs. low) need for self-protection about their own (desirable and undesirable) behaviors with an audience who suggests favorable or critical evaluations. Under high (vs. low) need for self-protection participants’ memory (recall and accessibility) should be adapted to a lower extent toward the audience’s evaluation, especially for undesirable behaviors. Because overt communication boosts face-saving (self-protecting) needs, the effect of self-enhancing biases might be even stronger with (vs. without) message production. Insights into these processes have practical significance regarding the social dynamics of memory biases in applied contexts, such as eyewitness memory or memory for performance in the workplace.

Principal Investigator

Prof. Dr. Gerald Echterhoff


PD Dr. Ullrich Wagner

The research unit FOR 2812 "Constructing scenarios of the past: A new framework in episodic memory" is a project funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG). The research unit studies the cognitive and neuronal mechanisms underlying scenario construction in episodic memory. We employ and integrate approaches from Philosophy, Psychology, and Experimental and Computational Neuroscience.


Universitätsstr. 150,
44801 Bochum, Germany

Tel: +49 (0)234 32 27996
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