This paper, recently published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, represents a core element of SIGN’s research program: to empirically measure the impact of social factors on the mechanics of learning. Cognitive research tells us that learning involves encoding material at a deep level, and that the optimum way to encode information is self-referentially. Social psychology tells us that the self is a dynamic and contextual construct. So, the question is therefore, how and to what extent can social context impact on a person’s ability to encode information, in other words, to learn?

To investigate this question, Bentley, Greenaway and Haslam first designed, built and tested an online self-referential encoding paradigm. The self-reference effect is a robust cognitive phenomenon, demonstrating that the highest levels of recall are generated through encoding information in relation to the self. However, the paradigm has never been validated using a purely on-line delivery. An earlier paper, ‘Developing an online paradigm for exploring the self-reference effect (Bentley, Greenaway & Haslam), did just that. Four studies and over 600 online participants, allowed the researchers to reliably validate the robustness of this new tool, and demonstrate a suitably comparative meta-analytic effect size.

Having established a reliable online tool, the team then used this to measure not only self-referential encoding, but also other-referential encoding, and under different social contexts. Self-categorisation theory describes how a person defines themselves according to the groups and social situations in which they are find themselves. Such levels of categorisation are often both functional and motivated, and can under certain circumstance be seen to enhance in-group similarities, as well as out-group differences. The way that such dynamic self-categorisations impact on self-related cognition has yet to be fully explored. In terms of learning, such fluctuations of self-function would undoubtedly have an impact on the way that incoming information is processed, retained and recalled. The studies Bentley, Greenaway and Haslam designed set out to measure levels of self and other encoding under situations of differing social dynamics. Using a well-known ostracism paradigm, as well as a self-designed conceptual replication, they measured just such levels of encoding. Results, as expected, demonstrated significantly higher levels of encoding when participants were made to feel included. Not only did this finding replicate across studies, but the design deployed a uniquely conservative test – that of encoding a stranger.

Psychological research has demonstrated that encoding information in relation to the self provides the deepest and most robust memory trace, but what this data is making clear, is that others can be encoded to as deep a level as the self when they share a psychological connection – that of social inclusion. What this implies for learning, is that when a person feels connected to other (their peers, their teachers, their learning environment etc.), their implicit ability to take in information about and from those others is enhanced. Rather than defining learning and intelligence as innate drives and capacities, the emphasis should not be on understanding how the very social context in which learning takes place can have a profound impact on the very core mechanisms of learning.