How memory biases affect information transmission: A rational analysis of serial reproduction

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 21 (NIPS 2008)

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Jing Xu, Thomas Griffiths


Many human interactions involve pieces of information being passed from one person to another, raising the question of how this process of information transmission is affected by the capacities of the agents involved. In the 1930s, Sir Frederic Bartlett explored the influence of memory biases in “serial reproduction” of information, in which one person’s reconstruction of a stimulus from memory becomes the stimulus seen by the next person. These experiments were done using relatively uncontrolled stimuli such as pictures and stories, but suggested that serial reproduction would transform information in a way that reflected the biases inherent in memory. We formally analyze serial reproduction using a Bayesian model of reconstruction from memory, giving a general result characterizing the effect of memory biases on information transmission. We then test the predictions of this account in two experiments using simple one-dimensional stimuli. Our results provide theoretical and empirical justification for the idea that serial reproduction reflects memory biases.