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Our brains learn better from people we like

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A new study from Lund University has shown that our brains are programmed to learn more from people we like and less from those we dislike.

Memory serves a vital function, and we learn both from individual experiences and from connecting them to draw new conclusions about the world. This allows us to make inferences about things that we don’t necessarily have direct experience of – a process called memory integration – and makes learning quick and flexible.

Inês Bramão, associate professor of psychology at Lund University, gives an example of memory integration of someone walking in a park who sees a man with a dog. A few hours later, the person sees the dog in the city with a woman, and their brain quickly makes the connection that the man and woman are a couple even though they have never seen them together.

Bramão stated: “Making such inferences is adaptive and helpful. But of course, there’s a risk that our brain draws incorrect conclusions or remembers selectively.”

Inês Bramão along with colleagues Marius Boeltzig and Mikael Johansson, set up experiments where participants were tasked with remembering and connecting different objects in order to examine what affects our ability to learn and make inferences.

For example, a bowl, ball, spoon, scissors, or other everyday objects. The findings showed that memory integration, for example, the ability to remember and connect information across learning events, was influenced by who presented it.

If it was a person the participant liked, connecting the information was easier compared to when the information came from someone the participant disliked. The participants provided individual definitions of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ based on aspects such as political views, major, eating habits, favourite sports, hobbies, and music.

The researchers suggest the findings can be applied in real life, according to the researchers.

Bramão gave an example: “A political party argues for raising taxes to benefit healthcare. Later, you visit a healthcare centre and notice improvements have been made. If you sympathise with the party that wanted to improve healthcare through higher taxes, you’re likely to attribute the improvements to the tax increase, even though the improvements might have had a completely different cause”.

“What our research shows is how these significant phenomena can partly be traced back to fundamental principles that govern how our memory works,” added Mikael Johansson, professor of psychology at Lund University.

“We are more inclined to form new connections and update knowledge from information presented by groups we favour. Such preferred groups typically provide information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs and ideas, potentially reinforcing polarized viewpoints.

“Particularly striking is that we integrate information differently depending on who is saying something, even when the information is completely neutral. In real life, where information often triggers stronger reactions, these effects could be even more prominent.”

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