books, Psychology

Associative Memory

A characteristic feature of System 1 is its ability to conjure up relevant words and imagery whenever you read something or even casually glance at text; it has been observed that even seemingly unrelated words elicit a coherent response in your mind.

Earlier schools of thought considered ideas as a linear sequence of thoughts built on a seed idea but our understanding of how these work has changed radically. It is now believed that ideas act like nodes in a network. Each node activates a bunch of other nodes which in turn activate others, thus triggering a chain reaction. Most of this is silent; meaning it goes unnoticed and not a by-product of conscious effort, hence a System 1 attribute.

Every sentence you read or image you take in gives rise to a response similar to this. Now consider being bombarded by hundreds of different ideas and opinions each starting off a different set of thoughts. It can be tiring. If you’ve wondered why it is so difficult to focus, this is one reason why. It is difficult to tame System 1, which is on all the time and which runs amok every time you have a new idea in your head.

I recently gave my GRE and for those of you who are familiar with it might know that it has a verbal section. The preparation for this section requires you to have decent vocabulary, something that I lacked. Like every other aspirant, I started mugging up words to rectify this. The way I remembered these words was to associate them with either a certain connotation (positive or negative) and then recall its meaning or its usage in a sentence. This is an excellent example of how our associative machinery works. While it was difficult to remember each word and its meaning, looking at the word nonetheless conjured up a unique train of thought in my head.

An extension of this idea of associative memory is that of priming. In essence, different types of words prime us to recall certain ideas over others and this subconsciously affects our decision making and actions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kanheman discusses the following example to illustrate the effects of priming:

Complete the following word  SO_P

If you’ve recently seen the word EAT, then SOUP will come to you easier but if you’ve seen the word WASH then SOAP would be easier to recall.

It has also been recorded that words influence our actions, although subliminally.

“This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”  A reverse linkage has also been observed.

Kanheman says the following about priming effects and why it might affect our sense of self.

“Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and choices.”

The takeaway here is that System 1 is prone to priming and performs its associative processes without our being aware of it. This in turn influences our actions, sometimes insidiously. We should factor in priming when making decisions and use System 2 to counter its effects when trying to make a dispassionate decision. There is also potential upside in exploiting the reverse linkage in the ideomotor effect.

Kanheman ends this chapter on this insightful note:

“You have now been introduced to the stranger in you, which may be in control of much of what you do, although you rarely have a glimpse of it. System 1 provides the impressions that often turn into beliefs, and it is the source of the impulses that often become your choices and actions. It offers a tacit interpretation of what happens to you and around you, linking the present with the recent past and with expectations about the near future. It contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising. It is the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgments. And it does most of this without your conscious awareness of its activities.”


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