How does transactive memory affect your recollections?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 8, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When humans gather in groups, each individual brings with them specific knowledge based on their own memories, experience, and expertise. The group as a whole can then generally retain more information and a group task more efficiently than any one person would be able to. This is an example of transactive memory, and it’s commonly discussed in reference to businesses and other types of organizations. Read on to learn more about transactive memory, and how communication skills can help you contribute to the overall knowledge of groups you may be a part of.

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Do you want to build transactive memory with others in a group?

What is transactive memory?

Transactive memory is a group behavior theory that was first proposed by Daniel Wegner in the 1980s. Wegner’s theory was developed in part as a response to the commonly accepted “group mind” theories that existed at the time; these put forth the idea that people in groups lose their individual consciousness. According to the abstract of Wegner’s book Transactive Memory: A Contemporary Analysis of the Group Mind, groups in these outdated theories were “assumed to be sentient, to have a form of mental activity that guides action.” Transactive memory offers a different view than these theories, stating that individuals in groups not only retain their individual consciousnesses but benefit from the consciousnesses of others in that group. 

Transactive memory is defined as “the ability of a group to have a memory system exceeding that of the individuals in the group”. It refers to the way in which teams of people in businesses, organizations, communities, or other collaborative groups develop a system of joint memory and combined knowledge. These groups are usually composed of individuals who each have their own knowledge concerning a specific area of expertise. This expanded capacity for knowledge storage and recall makes it possible to improve group performance and achieve goals that an individual generally could not on their own.

It may be possible to get a measure of transactive memory capabilities within a group. One study, titled Measuring Transactive Memory Systems in the Field: Scale Development and Validation, used a 15-item scale on 124 teams to determine the presence and efficiency of their transactive memory. The study demonstrated that transactive memory can be measured, though it suggested ways to improve the scale and the validity of future testing. 

How transactive memory works

You’ve likely seen transactive memory in action countless times throughout your life. Whenever you need help with something and think of an expert in that subject to turn to, you are using transactive memory to get knowledge within a group. Similarly, someone may have approached you for your expertise in a niche subject. Each team member can provide a mental model for a specific action or subject matter. These common mental models will help increase the overall capabilities of the group.

Transactive memory development also frequently appears in workplace environments. Different team members are typically responsible for various tasks within the range of their own skill and knowledge base. If additional information outside that expertise is required, they may turn to other team members with the appropriate experience. As a result of them all working together, each team member is able to achieve goals that would not be possible without this providing of expertise and skills. 

Per Wagner’s theory, a transactive memory ecosystem is made up of three processes:

  • Encoding processes, which refers to receiving information about someone else’s specialty and encoding this information in your own brain, associating that member’s knowledge domain with a specific person
  • Storage processes, where information is stored with the appropriate expert and discussed when new experts are identified, ensuring that the combined strength of the group’s memory persists while reducing the mental burden on individuals
  • Retrieval processes, which means that when specialized knowledge is required, team participants know whom to approach for the necessary information—and through the transactional interaction, the group makes progress toward common goals and objectives

The idea of transactive memory is still being studied. Future research directions vary, with some choosing to focus on issues pertaining to the concept of transactive memory systems (TMS). Some issues that researchers have identified include identifying a unified definition of TMS, excluding certain process components in a developing system, and the tendency for the dynamic nature of a TMS to be ignored during development. 

Note that transactive memory should not be confused with institutional memory. While both of these theoretical memory systems relate to how knowledge is combined and discussed among groups, transactive memory focuses on the current information and how it is distributed among group participants by specialty. Institutional memory, in contrast, is focused on how knowledge is passed down from generation to generation—or from experienced employees to untrained new staff.  The difference can be thought of as utilizing the experience of the existing group versus individual training for those who are just joining a company.

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Key elements of transactive memory

Several different elements factor into the effective functioning of combined transactive memory within a group. Understanding the various components may help you visualize how this kind of common memory system works. 

Specialization

Individual specialization is one of the most crucial elements of a unified memory system. Incompatible relationships or groups where everyone has the same set of knowledge and experiences could restrict the possibilities for innovation and achievement. Transactive memory is powerful precisely because team participants have diverse knowledge. This allows group members to rely on those with areas of expertise that differ from their own, and it also allows others to rely on them for their unique expertise as well. As a result, the group benefits as a whole. 

For example, if a project manager or public relations specialist had to figure out how to fix the printer every time it went down, it would take away from the time they could be spending doing what they’re best at. That’s why IT teams exist in many organizations because they have the specialized knowledge to fix tech issues for other team participants much more quickly and effectively than someone without that expertise could.

Coordination

The level of coordination that exists within a transactive memory group directly relates to its efficiency and potential for success. When group participants are aware of the specializations of other members in their group, they’re more likely to be able to successfully perform a task and work towards specific objectives. In other words, a lack of knowledge or area of weakness that one person may have doesn’t have to hinder the group’s progress as a whole. As an example, think about how developers don’t need to have marketing expertise for the product they’re building to be successful. Instead, marketing specialists—who may not know anything about coding—can handle that part so that the product and everyone who worked on it in any way can find success.

Credibility

Credibility refers to the confidence each group participant has that the information they receive from other participants is accurate. In other words, when one team participant goes to another to ask a question about that person’s area of expertise, they can trust in what they’ll be told. This confidence allows for increased productivity and team performance since it’s unlikely that an expert will give incorrect information that will slow down processes.

Communication

Finally, communication is also key to a well-functioning transactive memory ecosystem. Having effective communication can be the main difference between compatible and incompatible relationships. It doesn’t matter how specialized, coordinated, or credible individuals on a team are if they can’t effectively communicate their knowledge when called upon. Imagine, for example, how ineffective it would be if you went to a colleague on the accounting team for a question about the organization’s budget only to find that neither of you spoke the same language.

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology emphasizes that a functioning transactive memory system consists of efficacious communication. Based on the results of experiments on combined recall, researchers concluded that communication methods and their efficiency could substantially impact how knowledge is learned, recalled, and discussed in these collective systems.

Other examples of transactive memory

While this theory is primarily cited in reference to work organizations, it can also apply to romantic partnerships. After spending a significant amount of time together, many couples develop a transactive memory between the two of them. For example, in a couple with children, one partner may focus their effort and attention on working at a job outside the home to provide for the family’s material needs while the other works to manage the needs of the children and the household. The individual knowledge bases they each have likely include drastically different types of information. So while the partner who is employed outside the home may not know the names of the children’s teachers, they know they can rely on their partner for this knowledge and recognize that they bring other things to the table. 

“People in close relationships know many things about each other’s memories”, say the authors of Transactive Memory in Close Relationships. “Transactive memory is a unified system for encoding, storing, and retrieving information”.

It's also possible for those in close relationships to develop cognitive interdependence, which can be a result of their goals and identities merging. One study showed that cognitive interdependence was linked to more positive thoughts in a relationship and higher levels of commitment expression. This meshing of identities can contribute to transactive memory, as both parties become more closely attuned to the other’s knowledge and needs. 

Recent studies support the fact that communication is vital to making a transactive memory system work effectively, a concept that applies to organizations as much as to couples. In fact, Wegner himself used a couple’s behavior during a power blackout as an example of an efficient transactive memory system within a romantic relationship. He pointed out that one partner may not know where they store the candles, but could still retrieve them in the dark by asking the other and using their knowledge of the home to find them.

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Do you want to build transactive memory with others in a group?

Improving your communication skills

With a solid understanding of how transactive memory works, it’s clear how important communication is to any such system—whether it’s among coworkers or with a romantic partner. That’s why improving your communication skills can bring a variety of benefits to both your professional and personal life. If you’re looking for guidance in this area, a therapist may be able to assist you. They can help you develop skills for active listening, calm conflict resolution, and clear communication, and they can also help you manage conditions like low self-confidence or social anxiety that may be holding you back from communicating effectively.

If you’re interested in seeking the support of a therapist, you can typically choose between online or in-person sessions. Research suggests that both formats can offer similar benefits in most cases, so you can typically choose the one that feels most comfortable for you. If you’re looking for a more cost-effective option, you might consider virtual therapy. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can receive mental health care from a qualified, licensed provider for a fee that’s comparable to most insurance co-pays. Regardless of the method you choose, support for improving your communication skills is available.

Takeaway

Transactive memory can allow groups of people to achieve larger, more ambitious goals quicker or more effectively than any one individual typically could. Each member’s knowledge can contribute to the overall capabilities of the group. Communication is a key element of an effective transactive memory system, whether it’s in the workplace or between two romantic partners. Therapy is one way to improve your communication skills if you’re looking to strengthen your contributions.

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