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Are Our Meeting Memories Reliable? Science Suggests Otherwise

April 24th, 2024, Written by Archie Lacey

Are Our Meeting Memories Reliable? Science Suggests Otherwise

Real Life: Whose Recollection is Correct?

Have you ever discussed an event with a colleague, family member, friend, or, worse still, your boss, and discovered that you both had completely different takes on what was said?

Most, if not all of us, do. 

The big problem with this diversity of recall is that we are often convinced we are right, and the other is wrong. After all, you have a clear memory of the event.

Don’t you?

Let’s take a quick diversion into the wonderful land of anecdotes. A while back, I was hanging out with a good friend and his eldest daughter. To be clear, this family had a very rich vein of dark humor, an example of which appears in this very anecdote.

In the middle of a deep conversation about life and death (don’t worry, we weren’t going full Woody Allen), my friend decided to tell us about something his daughter had said many years ago on discovering how much her father was worth in terms of assets and life insurance.

“Dad! When you die, we can shop in Versace!”

Yes, the aforementioned dark humor. To be honest, knowing them well, I could imagine her saying this and both of them having a good laugh.

However, the moment her father began to relate the story, his daughter’s eyes proceeded to perform a perfectly executed here-we-go-again eye barrel-roll.

“No, I didn’t. He’s always saying this, and it never happened.”

So, who is in the right?

The person that heard this?

The person that was claimed to have said it and perhaps never did or perhaps said something that has been misinterpreted by the listener? Or, perhaps, they are remembering something said by someone else? Or is it a completely false memory pulling together a variety of sources?

The hard thing about answering this is that both are convinced they are right. 

Let’s take a quick swerve out of the land of anecdote into the world of business. After which we will enter the realm of science.

Varied Recollections of Meetings: Snowball Effect on Productivity Loss

I think we can all remember times where recollections from meetings have varied across a group. 

This problem increases as the days pass, leading to people doing things that weren’t agreed, not doing things that were and, sometimes, completely forgetting the most important decisions.

The knock-on effect of this is a loss of productivity, employee and managerial dissatisfaction, conflict, disharmony, and a lack of general progress.

There are many reasons why this happens, including:

  • Selective Perception: Our brains are bombarded with information during a meeting. We naturally focus on details relevant to our own interests, roles, or experiences, while filtering out others. This can lead to vastly different takeaways, even among people present for the entire discussion.
  • Memory Reconstruction: Memories aren’t static recordings. Over time, they can be unconsciously influenced by subsequent conversations, new information, or even our own expectations. Someone who hears a retelling of the meeting might unknowingly “patch up” their own memory with these external details, creating a distorted recollection.
  • Attention Lapses and Multitasking: Meetings can be long and often compete with other demands on our time. It’s natural for our attention to wander or for us to multitask. This can lead to missing key points or misinterpreting what’s being discussed, resulting in inaccurate recollections later.
  • Confirmation Bias: We tend to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs. During a meeting, someone might focus on details that support their viewpoint and overlook or downplay contradictory information. This can lead to a skewed recollection that aligns with their initial perspective.
  • Emotional State: Our emotional state during a meeting can significantly impact how we process information. Stress, fatigue, or even excitement can cloud our judgment and affect how we remember details. A tense discussion might be recalled as more heated than it actually was, while a productive one might feel less impactful in hindsight.
  • Confidence Bias: Just because someone is confident in their recollection doesn’t guarantee accuracy. Stress, fatigue, and even the pressure to be “helpful” can lead to distorted memories.

What is worse is that these processes, which are happening all the time in every one of us, are subconscious. This results in us believing with complete certainty that our memories are factual whereas they are sometimes not.

Document Meetings Well for a Single Source of Truth

Let’s look at the benefits of well-documented meetings:

  • Clarity and Consistency: Minutes provide a clear and consistent record of what was discussed, decisions made, and action items assigned. This ensures everyone involved has the same understanding of the outcomes.
  • Actionable Reference: Minutes serve as a roadmap for moving forward. Referring back to assigned tasks and deadlines prevents confusion and promotes accountability.
  • Improved Communication: Minutes facilitate communication with those who couldn’t attend the meeting. They can quickly catch up on key decisions and contribute further if needed.
  • Reduced Conflict: Disputes about what transpired can be minimized by having a documented record to refer to. Minutes become the truth serum, resolving discrepancies in memory.
  • Institutional Memory: Minutes create a historical record of past discussions and decisions. This institutional memory is invaluable for future projects and provides context for new hires or team members.

Hopefully, by now, you are getting the point that documenting meetings may just well be a good thing.

Traditionally, this documenting is carried out by a designated minute taker. You know, a human, who, like all the other humans in the room, is prone to the same problems and lapses that lead to an incomplete or distorted record. An AI note taker, on the other hand, doesn’t miss important details, mishear, lose attention, nod off, or fret over last night’s ball game.

Science Suggests that Our Memories May Not be Trustworthy

Memory Can Become Distorted

When we recall something, it is not like playing a movie back, whether that be through streaming or old-fashioned devices like DVD players. With those technologies, what is delivered is exactly the same as the first time it was recorded.

Nope. Memory has the following main stages:

  1. Encoding: This is the initial stage where information is taken in by our senses and processed. The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure deep within the brain, plays a crucial role in encoding new experiences. It consolidates the information and prepares it for storage.
  2. Consolidation: During consolidation, the hippocampus interacts with other brain regions, particularly the neocortex, the outermost layer. Here, the information is strengthened through a process called Long-Term Potentiation (LTP). LTP essentially strengthens the connections between neurons that fired together during the experience, making the memory more likely to be retrieved later.
  3. Retrieval: When you try to remember something, a specific cue triggers the retrieval process. This cue could be anything from a sight, sound, smell, or even an emotion linked to the memory. The hippocampus reactivates the network of neurons involved in the original experience, attempting to reconstruct the memory.
  4. Reconstruction: This is where things get interesting. The retrieved information isn’t a perfect replica. The brain pieces together fragments from various sources, including the original experience, sensory details, and even information learned after the event. This reconstruction process makes memories susceptible to biases and distortions.

Even Eyewitness Testimony Can be Flawed

While the research into eyewitness testimony (EWT) is not directly related to meetings, it does underline the way in which our recollections can be false.

The research in this area is primarily related to situations that may end up in court. Hopefully your office environment is not in that category! Neither is ours thankfully. We are all lovely here; especially my boss who made me write this paragraph.

Before we look at the evidence, here is a clip from Better Call Saul that illustrates one aspect of EWT:

Entertaining but also based on sound research.

The most famous experiment in this field was conducted by Loftus and Palmer. It had the following design and outcomes:

Loftus and Palmer Experiment Design:

  • Participants watched a film of a traffic accident.
  • Afterwards, they were divided into groups and asked questions about the accident.
  • The wording of the questions differed between groups, with some using neutral verbs like “contacted” and others using leading verbs that implied a higher speed, such as “smashed.”

Loftus and Palmer Results:

  • Participants who were exposed to questions with leading verbs (e.g., “smashed”) estimated the speed of the cars to be significantly faster than those who received neutral questions (e.g., “contacted”).
  • In a follow-up question (not mentioned in the film), a higher percentage of participants who received leading questions reported seeing broken glass at the accident scene, even though there was none.

This research, and others, have led to courts frowning on leading questions.

In one recent case, just in the cross-examination of a single witness, the defense attorney objected to questions no less than 40 times. The majority of these were, “Objection – leading”.  

If this has piqued your interest, then mosey on over to Noba to delve deeper into more aspects of the potential flaws in EWT.

Remove Inaccuracies in Your Meeting Notes with CaptureMyMeeting

To avoid all the downfalls associated with not documenting meetings properly and avoiding the inevitable faulty note-taking by a human, it makes sense to integrate a note taking system like CaptureMyMeeting into your suite of business apps.

An example of a company that agrees is Virtual First, which provides both physical and soft infra-structure for businesses. This is what they had to say about CaptureMyMeeting:

“When Farhana approached us at first, we thought we had our note-taking perfected. The problem was that everyone was taking their own notes. After listening to her presentation covering the features of CaptureMyMeeting as well as the psychological reasons why old-fashioned human methods don’t work, we realized we needed to change our processes.”

Archie Lacey

Virtual First

References and Further Reading

Classic Studies

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(2), 583-588. (This study explored how leading questions can influence eyewitness memory)

Wells, G. L., & Loftus, E. F. (2000). Eyewitness testimony: Psychological principles and practical applications. Psychology Press. (A comprehensive exploration of the psychology of eyewitness memory)

Academic Articles and Journals

Wixted, J. T., & Brigham, J. C. (2018). Eyewitness identification. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(6), 426-431. (A review of recent research on eyewitness identification)

Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). Suggestibility of children’s memory: Social psychological and cognitive influences. Annual Review of Psychology, 44(1), 435-467. (Examines how children’s memory can be influenced by suggestion)

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. (This study suggests longhand note-taking may lead to deeper comprehension and information recall compared to laptop note-taking)

Banerjee, S., & Duflo, E. (2011). Keeping track: How transparency affects fertilizer use in India. The American Economic Review, 101(7), 3009-3043. (This study, while not directly related to meetings, explores the positive impact of record-keeping on behavior and outcomes)

Duarte, D. H. (2007). Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. John Wiley & Sons. (This book, while not a research article, highlights the importance of clear and concise communication in meetings, which benefits from good note-taking)

Take Better Notes: Making Sense of What You Hear by Nancy Duarte (A practical guide to effective note-taking techniques)

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Your Learning and Creativity by Sönke Ahrens (Another practical guide to note-taking methods)

Examining the Benefits of Taking Business Meeting Notes: A Comprehensive Analysis (https://salleprivee.ca/venue-onboarding-2/) (A report exploring the advantages of taking notes during business meetings)

Websites

Asana: Take Better Meeting Notes: 9 Tips [2024] (https://help.asana.com/hc/en-us/articles/17974699567643-Meeting-agendas) (This article offers practical tips for effective meeting note-taking)

Mural: 7 Tips to Take More Effective Meeting Notes (https://www.mural.co/templates/meeting-notes) (Another resource with practical strategies to enhance your meeting note-taking