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How Do We Remember and Apply What We Learn?

by Creties Jenkins, Partner at Rose & Associates

Take 30 seconds to memorize these 10 items from a shopping list, and then write down how many you can recall: milk, yogurt, croissants, bananas, muffins, coffee, ham, jelly, cheese, eggs. Most people will be able to remember about 7 items. Now make a note to construct this list again from memory in 24 hours. How many do you think you’ll recall? I’ll be impressed if you can list 5 or more!

The problem, of course, is that this list is being held in your short-term memory (STM) and doesn’t get transferred to long-term memory (LTM). As you can see, STM has a severe capacity limitation. However, this can be overcome, in part, by informational grouping. So if you noticed that the list above consists of breakfast items, you can create this organizational structure in your LTM to help you more easily recall the items next time.

This interconnectedness of information is a cornerstone of memory. Think of memory as a massive, multi-dimensional web in which data is retrieved by tracing through the network. Retrievability is influenced by the number of storage locations as well as the number and strength of the pathways. The more frequently a path is followed, the stronger the path becomes.

This can be illustrated by comparing the abilities of chess masters and ordinary players. If you randomly place 20-25 chess pieces on a board for 5-10 seconds, each of these groups will only be able to recall the positions of about six pieces. However, if the positions are taken from an actual game, the masters will be able to reproduce nearly all of the positions whereas the ordinary players will still only be able to recall the positions of six pieces.

The masters are using their LTM to connect individual positions together into recognizable patterns that ordinary players do not see. This ability to recall patterns that relate facts to each other and to broader concepts (such as strategy) is critical for success in chess. But what about the business world?

Decision makers and subject matter experts often see themselves as the equivalent of chess masters. They believe the data and experiences contained in their LTM allow them to uniquely perceive patterns and draw inferences that give them a competitive advantage. What’s forgotten many times, is that unlike chess, the permissible moves in the oil and gas business are constantly changing.

Once you start thinking about a given challenge, the same pathways that led you to a successful outcome in similar challenges will get activated and strengthened. This can create mental ruts that make it difficult to process different perspectives, including those that could lead to a better outcome. Our memories are seldom reassessed or reorganized in response to new information, making it difficult to modify these existing patterns.

To overcome this, you need a wider variety of patterns to reference and greater processing of new information to fully understand its impact. This means reaching out to a wider network of experts and devoting more time and effort to develop a deeper understanding, as well as implementing procedures that facilitate this including framing sessions, peer reviews and performance lookbacks.

These procedures, as well as others, are discussed and practiced in our Mitigating Bias, Blindness and Illusion in E&P Decision Making course. Please consider joining us for a virtual or in-person offering, either as an open enrollment or internal session at your company.

Reference excerpted for this blog: Heuer, Richard J., Jr., 1999, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Center for the Study of Intelligence.

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