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Working to improve memory

Aaron Benjamin is a member of the Beckman Institute’s Cognitive Science group whose research focus is on metamemory, or how people think about their own memory.

Published on Feb. 20, 2013

Aaron Benjamin describes himself as a behavioral memory researcher, with a focus on metamemory, or how people think about their own memory.  It’s a topic he not only researches but finds himself practicing when it comes to daily life.

“I don’t usually have to pick up my son from school but when I do, I put a note on the inside of my door,” Benjamin said. “If I don’t write a note, or if I put it here on my desk, I could miss it.”

Benjamin’s research focus on memory has led to conclusions that have real-world implications, such as using memory aids like notes to help remember important tasks.

“People who are very overconfident in their ability to remember stuff, don’t write notes and forget,” he said. “It’s not just having external aids but external aids that are in good position to ensure success. Habits are very strong and if you want to overcome a habit you need to put something out there that is going to help you. You can’t just rely on memory, particularly the older we get.”

Benjamin is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and a faculty member in Beckman’s Cognitive Science group. His original interest in computer science as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon was supplanted by psychology after working with an artificial intelligence group.

Habits are very strong and if you want to overcome a habit you need to put something out there that is going to help you. You can’t just rely on memory, particularly the older we get.
– Aaron Benjamin

Benjamin later earned a Ph.D. at UCLA in psychology but kept a computational component to his research. He has maintained a research focus on topics involving memory throughout his postgraduate career, including the last 12 years spent at Illinois and Beckman.

“I study human memory and decision-making with a particular interest in questions of what people know and understand about their own memory, and how they guide their own memory and learning,” Benjamin said. “We try and do that through experimental studies of learning, through individual difference analyses, and through computational modeling.”

Benjamin directs the Human Memory and Cognition Laboratory, which uses “empirical, computational, and developmental approaches to understand how memory works in humans.” Two recent findings from his research include a study on what is called the cross-race effect in metamemory and another on students’ adaptive changes in relation to expectations about test formats. Benjamin said the cross-race effect – where people are worse at recognizing faces from other races – is well-known, but how they view their ability to remember faces (their metamemory) is not. Research by a former postdoctoral scholar in his lab, Kathleen Hourihan, addressed the question.

“What we found in this research is that not only are people worse in recognizing those faces, they are also worse at predicting which faces of another race they will remember or not,” he said. And while there can be some degree of accuracy in remembering faces for their own race, he said, “when you look at the faces of another race, their judgments are not nearly as accurate.

“This is an important finding because the whole cross-race effect is important for establishing the validity of eyewitness testimony. When jurors pay attention to an eyewitness in a courtroom, one of the things they pay attention to is their confidence. That drives juror decisions a lot. It’s already known that that confidence is an imperfect predictor of how accurate they are. This finding tells us that judgments about other race faces are even less accurate than they are about their own race.”

The study on students’ approach to tests found that learners study differently based on their knowledge of the test, such as whether it will be a multiple choice exam. Benjamin and former graduate student Jason Finley found that if students are expecting a particular type of test it actually changes the way they encode cues for recalling answers.

“That is one of the first findings ever to show that people qualitatively change the way they learn material based on their expectation of what the test is going to demand,” he said.

Benjamin said that he allows the students in his lab a lot of freedom in creating their own research lines, and that the freedom to explore is what led him to become a psychology researcher.

 “You can do anything and call yourself a psychologist,” he said with a laugh. “I had a lot of other interests as an undergraduate and graduate student, and I noticed that if you call yourself a psychologist, there is almost nothing you can do where someone will say ‘you are no longer a psychologist.’”

Benjamin has also come to some conclusions about memory that may hearten those worried about memory loss as they age, an area he studies.

“People think they have good or bad memories but the truth is, we don’t differ that much in the capacity of our memory,” he said. “Where we differ is in our ability to use our memory effectively. Everyone forgets most stuff. Some people are smart enough to take good notes, some people are smart enough to write things down in places where they are going to see them when they need them.

“It’s these kinds of strategies that matter more for how well their memory ends up playing out in real life than their actual memory capacity.”

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  • Aaron S. Benjamin
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