Shared Attention Effects on Memory. Motivational Relevance as a Moderating Factor

Master's Thesis, 2016

38 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Shared attention effects on memory
Motivational relevance
The present study







Shteynberg’s social tuning effect (2010) shows that synchronously experiencing something with relationally close others, leads to better memory for the attended object. With reference to the novel Relevance of a representation framework (in short ROAR, Eitam & Higgins, 2010), the present study now investigated the motivational processes underlying this effect. The memory advantage was expected to appear only for objects that were motivationally relevant for an anticipated group interaction with relationally close others. In an online experiment, based on the original paradigm, participants completed a recognition memory test on words that were experienced in a (fictitious) group. The group condition (more vs. less relationally close) and the interaction condition (anticipated vs. not anticipated) were manipulated. As expected, it was found that those words were remembered better that were anticipated to be regarded in a group interaction, independent from group condition. The present study provides evidence for the key role of motivational relevance in cognitive processes, as postulated by ROAR.

Keywords: shared attention, social tuning effect, motivational relevance, truth relevance


“Everyone will admit that man is a social being. We see this in his dislike of solitude and in his wish for society beyond that of his family. Solitary confinement is one of the severest punishments which can be inflicted” (p. 102), wrote Charles Darwin (1871) and pointed out the comprehensive extent to that our everyday lives are touched by the people surrounding us. They immediately affect us in the way we behave, feel, or think. Sometimes unconsciously, we adjust behavior, attitudes, and even memory. Indeed, we do remember those experiences better, that we perceive together with someone we feel connected with (for a review, see Shteynberg, 2015). For example, if we watch a soccer match together with a friend, we will be able to reproduce details of the match more precisely than if we watched it alone, or together with a person we don’t feel related to. And this seems even reasonable, facing the possibility of future interaction concerning the jointly attended experience, such as a conversation about this match afterwards. And this, maybe even subconsciously, anticipated interaction makes the match in a way more relevant. Relevant information, however, is handled in a more sophisticated way in the mind than irrelevant (for a review, see Eitam, Miele, & Higgins, 2013). The other way around, if we watched the match with a stranger, like randomly in a bar, or even alone, this relevance is absent, because future interaction concerning the match would seem quite unlikely. As a result, we actually were able to reproduce the match less precisely. This memory advantage for experiences we co-attend together with relationally close others is called the social tuning effect (Shteynberg, 2010). Obviously, sharing experiences together with others is widely in common. Not only when watching a soccer match, but also in schools, at work, in public places, or in the Internet. The widespread nature of shared attention on a range of situations clearly displays the significance of considering this effect, not only in everyday life, but also in science. So far, the specific mechanisms underlying the effect have not been greatly investigated and the explanation in terms of anticipated group interaction as described above is rather assumed than definitely proven. Supplementary support for investigating the motivational conditions underlying the social tuning effect comes from recent research on the key role of motivational relevance in cognitive processes. The novel Relevance of a representation framework (in short ROAR, Eitam & Higgins, 2010) highlights that experiences are to a large extent dynamically engaged in cognitive processes and to that extent they are motivationally relevant, for instance in an anticipated interaction. The present study investigated the role of motivational relevance in the social tuning effect using a variation of the original paradigm by Shteynberg (2010, Study 2).

Shared attention effects on memory

The human mind is permanently challenged to prioritize certain aspects of the environment over others due to limited processing resources (Broadbent, 1958; Miller, 1956). That is why scientists from various disciplines widely investigate the mechanisms and conditions, under which experiences enter our minds.

Within the tradition of social psychology scholarship, researchers are highly concerned with the influences by others on these mechanisms (Allport, 1985), and provide groundwork for mental processes and social circumstances. Social conditions have been considered in basic cognitive processes from the lay epistemic (Kruglanski, 1989), the connectionist (Read, Vanman, & Miller, 1997), and the ideomotor (Massen & Prinz, 2009) perspectives. One aspect all of these theories have in common is to consider surrounding people as important social moderators, but not as the primary and essential component in their conceptual structure.

In contrast, Shteynberg (2010; 2015 for a review) recently introduced one novel processing mechanism that is fundamentally constituted on the social circumstances of the individual rather than only influenced by it and thereby highlights the influence of other people on the individual’s cognitive processes. Based on his shared attention theory, Shteynberg presented the social tuning effect, which exclusively demonstrates that individuals remember those experiences better that are shared with a related person. For instance, synchronously co-attending an object together with a relationally close person leads to greater allocation of cognitive resources, which results in improved memory (Shteynberg, 2010), stronger motivation (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011), more extreme judgements (Boothby, Clark, & Bargh, 2014), higher affective intensity (Shteynberg et al., 2014), and greater behavioral learning (Shteynberg & Apfelbaum, 2013) (cf. Fig. 1).

In his investigations on the social tuning effect, Shteynberg (2010; 2015 for a review) used variations of the same paradigm. Typically, participants come to the lab in groups of three and are seated in front of separate computers. For the study, which is pretended to be about online focus groups, they are asked to select a colored avatar. Depending on experimental condition, participants receive the information that the other group members have selected either the same or different colors for their avatars. In this way, participants can be referred to be in either a similar others or dissimilar others condition. This manipulation is based on the Minimal Group Paradigm (Tajfel, 1970) and ensures that the other group members are perceived as more (same colors) or less (different colors) similar to oneself. Thereby, the relation to the other group members is manipulated by varying the level of one’s similarity to the other group members (Turner, 1999; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). Synchronously experiencing various objects, like words or paintings, with the more (vs. less) relationally close others, shows the social tuning effect, as participants in the similar (vs. dissimilar) others condition show more (vs. less) accurate recognition performances of the experienced stimuli in recognition memory tests. The social tuning effect was also replicated in online studies, where participants took part at home alone and the other group members were completely fictitious (e.g., Kopietz, Eitam, & Shteynberg, in preparation; Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011; Shteynberg, Hirsh, Galinsky, & Knight, 2013).

The essential basis for Shteynberg’s (2015) concept is the shared-attention state, which is defined as the awareness of co-attending synchronously with a relationally close other person. Put simply, it means a sense of “We are attending to X” (cf. p. 582). This definition offers an important distinction to related concepts, like Joint Attention (Moore & Dunham, 1995; Scaife & Bruner, 1975), which requires gaze or finger pointing and therefor physical closeness. In contrast, the shared-attention state is independent of places and even independent of a factual co-attention. Crucial is the awareness of sharing an experience. For example, I might still assume that a friend watched a soccer match with me, even if he fell asleep, or if he watched the match separately at his house. This independence of places leads to a wide range of experiences that can be the object of shared attention, without the need of being physically close.

One crucial condition in this concept is the relation to the co-attending person, as the shared-attention state becomes stronger with a close relationship (Shteynberg, 2015). And this comes with the assumed explanations of the effect. Primarily, Shteynberg explains the effect in terms of intentional coordination within one’s social group. Generally, objects that are experienced together with others are relevant, because future group interaction regarding this object is perceived as likely (Boyd & Richerson, 2009; Sperber & Wilson, 1986; Tsai, Lan, Chen, Henrich, & Boyd, 1998). Especially interaction within one’s social group is relevant, as both individual and group fitness always depends on intra-group coordination and collaborating, following an evolutionary perspective (e.g., Bowles & Gintis, 2003; Kesebir, 2012; Sober & Wilson, 1998; Wilson & Wilson, 2007).

Building on these ideas, Shteynberg (2010; 2015) argues that individuals allocate greater cognitive resources to those objects that are perceived to be co-attended with relationally close others, which in turn results in improved memory. For instance, he suggests that these objects would receive more elaborate encoding, which then would result in increased cognitive accessibility.

So far, conclusive evidence for explaining the social tuning effect in terms of anticipated group coordination is lacking. Shteynberg (2010; 2015) suggested investigating the specific motivational and also cognitive processes determining the social tuning effect. Supplementary support for investigating the motivational processes underlying the effect comes from recent research on motivational relevance affecting cognitive processes, as described in the following.

Motivational relevance

The picture of the human mind has widely changed from a passive storage with slowly fading entries to a functional and flexible structure with synchronously working active and dynamic processes attempting to reconstruct the past (Bartlett, 1932; Jenkins, 1974; Koriat, Goldsmith, & Pansky, 2000). One important factor, for a range of processes in the human mind, has been widely shown to be a powerful selectivity by motivational relevance. For instance, selectivity by motivational relevance in the mind has been shown referring to perception (e.g., Balcetis & Dunning, 2006; Bruner, 1957; Eitam, Schul, & Hassin, 2009; Moray, 1959), believing (Klein & Kunda, 1992), acting (Rushworth, Walton, Kennerly, & Bannerman, 2004), and also memory (for reviews, see Eitam, Miele, & Higgins, 2013; Kunda, 1990).

Although memories correspond closely to the initially experienced object, there are discrepancies, which, from this perspective, result from the interaction between memory and motivational processes, and reflect the motivation concerning information, instead of a mere pursuit toward accurate reproductions of encoded information (for reviews see Eitam et al., 2013; Kunda, 1990; Molden & Higgins, 2005).

While motivation was mostly seen as a mere facilitator of cognitive processes in research literature so far, Eitam and Higgins (2010) presented the novel and evidence based ROAR framework, which highlights an object’s motivational relevance as the primary determinant of whether and to what extent information is engaged in cognitive processes. The central concepts of ROAR concern the nature of the accessibility of information to engage cognitive processes and its motivational relevance.

In general, accessibility is seen as the readiness or ease with which the mental representation of information can be activated by stimulation to engage cognitive processes, like learning, thinking, or retrieval (Bruner, 1957; Higgins & King, 1981). Only if activated, the representation shifts from a latent and inactive state to an active one, and then it is no longer only available and inactive but is also involved in current thought and action (Higgins, 1996).

From this perspective, the accessibility of a representation (of information) is critically determined by its motivational relevance (Eitam & Higgins, 2010).

Mostly, in literature, human motivation is reduced to approaching desired outcomes and avoiding the undesired. In contrast and following Higgins (2012), ROAR (Eitam & Higgins, 2010) differentiates human motivation as fundamentally wanting to be effective at three distinct things: having desired outcomes (Value relevance), managing what happens (Control relevance), and establishing what’s real (Truth relevance).

Value relevance is being successful in having what is desired, like benefits (vs. costs), pleasure (vs. pain), or succeeding (vs. failing) in satisfying basic needs. While this motivation in having desired outcomes seems obvious, and is considered most frequently in literature (cf. Eitam & Higgins, 2010; Eitam, Higgins, & Miele, 2013), ROAR provides one distinction here to other concepts, like to Fazio’s MODE model (2007), by predicting that not only objects with high positive value serve value relevance, but also objects with high negative value. For example, spider-phobic people recalled pictures of spiders better than other pictures (Reinecke, Rinck, & Becker, 2006), because they were more (negatively) valued to them, thus they served value relevance and were more engaged in cognitive processes.

Control relevance is being successful at managing what is required to make something happen (or not happen) like an action in order to achieve a certain outcome. Many studies have shown the “cognitive blindness” for presented, but goal-irrelevant information (Most, Scholl, Clifford, & Simons, 2005), such as when participants did not recognize a person in a gorilla costume crossing their visual fields (Simons & Chabris, 1999).

Truth relevance is being successful in establishing what is real like things that are true (vs. false), real (vs. imaginary) or right (vs. wrong). This relevance is of particular interest in the present study, investigating the processes underlying the social tuning effect. It is in the human nature to establish and preserve what he thinks to be true, real, and right. For example, it was shown that words were remembered better (vs. worse) which depict something that really exists (vs. not exists) or is present (vs. absent) (Kaup, 2001; Kaup & Zwaan, 2003), because they were truer, and thus served truth relevance (more). According to the social tuning paradigm (Shteynberg, 2010), those objects would be more motivational relevant that were anticipated to be regarded in future group interaction, as they were relevant for establishing what is true and thus served truth relevance. In turn, objects that were not anticipated to be regarded as relevant in a group interaction, would be less motivationally relevant, as they did not serve the goal.

From the ROAR perspective (Eitam & Higgins, 2010), both motivational and cognitive processes are highly flexible and dynamic mechanisms (e.g., Custers & Arts, 2010) that correspond closely (Ross, 1989).

One striking example for showing the dynamics of remembering by current motives is a study by Anderson and Pichert (1978), where participants were instructed to adopt the role of either a burglar or homebuyer, when reading a story about two boys coming home after cutting school. Afterwards, they were asked to recall the story as precisely as they could. A few minutes later, participants were instructed to change the roles and to recall the story again. As result, they now recalled more of the information that was irrelevant from the first perspective but was now relevant from the second perspective. Thus, initially seemingly forgotten information was later more accessible, when it became relevant.

Taken together, from this perspective, cognitive processes correspond highly, dynamically and flexibly to information’s motivational relevance. According to the social tuning paradigm (Shteynberg, 2010), objects would be more engaged in cognitive processes if they were anticipated to be regarded in future interaction, than if they were not anticipated to be regarded, because they were more motivationally relevant. This would result in improved memory for the motivational relevant object.


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Shared Attention Effects on Memory. Motivational Relevance as a Moderating Factor
University of Münster
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Shared attention, social tuning effect, motivational relevance, truth relevance
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Manuel Wirth (Author), 2016, Shared Attention Effects on Memory. Motivational Relevance as a Moderating Factor, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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