Transactive Memory

Transactive Memory Definition

An important function of relationships is information sharing. People often look to their interpersonal and work relationships for needed information: the forgotten name of a common acquaintance, an opinion on possible investment strategies, or help with an unfamiliar task such as setting up a wireless network. People in relationships often share the burden for learning and remembering information by dividing responsibility for different knowledge areas; for example, in a work team, one member may be responsible for all information related to Client X while another member may be responsible for all information related to Client Y. When one person needs information in another’s area, they can simply ask the person responsible rather than taking the time and energy to learn the information themselves. The knowledge sharing system that often develops in relationships and in groups where people assume responsibility for different knowledge areas and rely on one another for information is called transactive memory.

Transactive MemoryTransactive memory refers to the idea that people in continuing relationships often develop a specialized division of labor; that is, specific roles with respect to the encoding, storage, and retrieval of information from different knowledge domains. Each member of the relationship becomes a “specialist” in some areas but not others, and members rely on one another for information. For example, among life partners, one partner might be responsible for knowing the couples’ social calendar and car maintenance schedule, while the other might be responsible for knowing when the bills need to be paid and what is in the refrigerator. Such specialization reduces the memory load for each individual, yet each individual has access to a larger pool of information collectively. For transactive memory to function effectively, individuals must also have a shared conceptualization of “who knows what” in the group.

Transactive memory is more than knowing who to ask for information in different knowledge areas. It also involves retrieval and communication processes: knowing how to ask for information from others in the system, knowing how to communicate information effectively to those who need it, and knowing how to use retrieved information in collective decisions. What makes transactive memory “transactive” are the “transactions” (i.e., communications) among individuals to encode, store, and retrieve information from their individual memory systems. Transactive memory theory and research borrows heavily from what is known about the memory processes of individuals and applies it to groups.

Evidence of transactive memory systems has been demonstrated in a variety of relationships and groups, including married couples, dating couples, families, friends, coworkers, and project teams in both organizational and laboratory settings.

Transactive Memory Development

One necessary condition for transactive memory development is cognitive interdependence: Individuals must perceive that their outcomes are dependent on the knowledge of others and that those others’ outcomes are dependent on their knowledge. Cognitive interdependence often develops in close interpersonal relationships, in which people share responsibilities, engage in conversations about many different topics, and make joint decisions. It can also arise as a result of a reward system or the structure of a group task.

Transactive memory develops as individuals learn about one another’s expertise and begin to delegate and assume responsibility for different knowledge areas. The delegation process by which members are associated with knowledge areas is often implicit and informal, emerging through interaction. Individuals can become linked to knowledge-based relative expertise (the best cook is likely to become the person in charge of knowing what is in the refrigerator), negotiated agreements (one person agrees to keep track of car maintenance if the other will keep track of when bills are due), or through circumstance (the person who answered the phone when Client X called the first time becomes the “Client X” expert). In newly formed groups, individuals are likely to rely on stereotypes based on personal characteristics (such as age, gender, ethnicity, social class, and organizational role) to infer what others know. In some cases, these initial assumptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies: Individuals are assigned knowledge areas that are consistent with social stereotypes, even though they may not fit with their actual expertise, and eventually become experts as a result of those assignments. For example, a male group member might be assigned to set up a wireless network because the group assumes that he knows more about technology than his female group members when in fact he does not. Through the slow and cumbersome learning process of setting it up, he ultimately becomes an expert on wireless networks.

Informal interactions and shared experiences provide opportunities for members to learn about the relative expertise of other members, to indicate their interests and preferences, to coordinate who does what, to observe members’ skills in action, and to evaluate the willingness of others to participate in the transactive memory system. Those systems set up by formal design (such as a listing of job responsibilities of staff in an office procedures handbook) are either validated or modified over time as individuals discover whether individuals assigned to specific knowledge roles are able and willing to perform them.

Processes in Transactive Memory

A directory-sharing computer network has been used as a metaphor for illustrating key processes of transactive memory systems. The first process is directory updating, whereby individuals develop a working directory or map of “who knows what” and update it as they obtain relevant new information. The second process is information allocation, whereby new information that comes into the group is communicated to the person whose expertise will facilitate its storage. The third process is retrieval coordination, which involves devising an efficient and effective strategy for retrieving needed information based on the person expected to have it.

Unlike the literal and straightforward ways that computer networks update directories, and locate, store, and retrieve information, transactive memory systems among human agents are often flawed. Transactive memory systems can vary in accuracy (the degree to which group members’ perceptions about other members’ expertise are accurate), sharedness (the degree to which members have a shared representation of who knows what in the group), and validation (the degree to which members accept responsibility for different knowledge areas and participate in the system). Transactive memory systems will be most effective when knowledge assignments are based on group members’ actual abilities, when all group members have similar representations of the system, and when members fulfill expectations.

Context and Importance of Transactive Memory

In recent years, a renewed interest in the collective aspects of cognition has emerged. Proponents argue that contrary to current social psychological conceptions of social cognition as individual thought about social objects, social cognition should be thought of as a product of social interchange and is constructed, shared, and distributed among groups of people during the course of interaction. Theory of and research on transactive memory examine the collective aspects of cognition. Transactive memory helps explain how people in collectives learn, store, use, and coordinate their knowledge to accomplish individual, group, and organizational goals.

Transactive Memory Implications

People in close interpersonal and work relationships often perform their tasks and make decisions more effectively than strangers, because they are better able to identify experts and make better use of knowledge through their transactive memory system. Transactive memory systems can lead to improved group performance on tasks for which groups must process a large amount of information in a short period of time and on tasks that require expertise from many different knowledge domains. However, there may be situations in which too much specialization may impede group performance, for example, when assigned experts are unavailable, unable, or unwilling to contribute their knowledge. Even when specialization leads to better outcomes, some redundancy may be useful. It helps members to communicate more effectively, it can encourage group members to be more accountable to one another, and it can provide a cushion for transitions in relationships when, for example, the designated expert leaves the group. New technologies facilitating the development of transactive memory are emerging to help people locate and retrieve information from experts in their organizations and in their social networks.


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