Thursday, March 30, 2023

The problem of serial recall in humans [& the problem of stories in ChatGPT]

Yesterday I bumped an old post to the top of the queue because it bears on a matter I’m currently thinking about, narrative. The post is Bleg: Memory for Serial Order. It references a passage from F.C. Bartlett’s classic Remembering. I’ve decided to post the relevant passage in full.

Why am I currently interested in the issue? Because I’m thinking about how ChatGPT tells stories. Now, a story is more than a narrative, which simply lists one event after another. A story has some kind of, shall we say, point. Just what THAT is, that’s been the object of considerable discussion in one discipline or another. Nothing much depends on it. What I’m trying to get a handle on is just what ChatGPT “knows” when it begins to tell a story, and the nature of that knowledge. I don’t see how it can tell story after story without in some sense knowing what a story is. But, when it does tell a story, it does so one word at a time. How do we reconcile these two things: telling a story one-word-at-a-time and yet also ordering those words into a proper story. I’ve said a thing or two about this in my paper, ChatGPT tells stories, and a note about reverse engineering: A Working Paper.

What Bartlett is telling us is that there are people who, when asked to testify in court about something that happened, say, at mid-day, cannot do so without starting at the beginning of the day and narrating everything that happened before the event in question. Why? Why can’t they skip over all the irrelevant events and go directly to the relevant one? Why, in effect, must they go word-by-word until they get there?

* * * * *

F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932), from the chapter, “Social Psychology and the Manner of Recall,” pp. 264-266:

As everybody knows, the examination by Europeans of a native witness in a court of law, among a relatively primitive people, is often a matter of much difficulty. The commonest alleged reason is that the essential differences between the sophisticated and the unsophisticated modes of recall set a great strain on the patience of any European official. It is interesting to consider an actual record, very much abbreviated, of a Swazi trial at law. A native was being examined for the attempted murder of a woman, and the woman herself was called as a necessary witness. The case proceeded in this way:

The Magistrate: Now tell me how you got that knock on the head.

The Woman: Well, I got up that morning at daybreak and I did... (here followed a long list of things done, and of people met, and things said). Then we went to so and so’s kraal and we... (further lists here) and had some beer, and so and so said....

The Magistrate: Never mind about that. I don’t want to know anything except how you got the knock on the head.

The Woman: All right, all right. I am coming to that. I have not got there yet. And so I said to so and so... (there followed again a great deal of conversational and other detail). And then after that we went on to so and so’s kraal.

The Magistrate: You look here; if we go on like this we shall take all day. What about that knock on the head?

The Woman: Yes; all right, all right. But I have not got there yet. So we... (on and on for a very long time relating all the initial details of the day). And then we went on to so and so’s kraal.. .and there was a dispute ... and he knocked me on the head, and I died, and that is all I know.

Practically all white administrators in undeveloped regions agree that this sort of procedure is typical of the native witness in regard to many questions of daily behaviour. Forcibly to interrupt a chain of apparently irrelevant detail is fatal. Either it pushes the witness into a state of sulky silence, or disconcerts him to the extent that he can hardly tell his story at all. Indeed, not the African native alone, but a member of any slightly educated community is likely to tell in this way a story which he has to try to recall.

Yet everywhere there are differences as the topic of discussion shifts about. The Swazi herdsman recalled the price, colour and origin of his cattle swiftly, and disregarded all irrelevant detail. In contrast with this, when I asked him why he had not been available the preceding afternoon, he began at the morning of that day, spoke of outspanning the wagon, of taking down an engine, of difficulties at a ford, and of various other things. At length he described how he had arrived across the river and had gone with others to a particular place... “ and then we had a beer-drinking.. .and it was then that the message came”.

No doubt a part of the explanation of this mode of rote remembering is individual. It is characteristic of the person of few interests, and those largely unorgamsed and concrete in nature. It indicates that there is no main directing or master tendency at work, except the normal ‘schematic’ temporal one. Given a predominant preferred tendency, and recall is in proportion direct and uncomplicated. Supplementing individual characteristics, however, are social devices. In Swaziland, for example, news travels among the native population with great rapidity. There is no native system of signals for its transmission, but, whenever two wanderers on a pathway meet, they make a clean breast one to another of all that they have lately done, seen, and learned. Rote recital is easily the best method. The same style is exploited in the leisurely and wordy native councils. There is behind it the drive of a group with plenty of time, in a sphere of relatively uncoordinated interest, where everything that happens is about as interesting as everything else, and where, consequently, a full recital is socially approved. Thus the individual temperament and the social organisation play one upon the other, and both perpetuate a particular manner of recall.

One further point, and I will then attempt a provisional statement of principles.

Any story, or any series of incidents, recalled in the presence, and for the hearing, of other members of the same group will tend to display certain characteristics. The comic, the pathetic, and the dramatic, for example, will tend to spring into prominence. There is social control from the auditors to the narrator. It is easy to demonstrate this experimentally. The commonest of all methods of producing the humorous, the pathetic and the dramatic effect is by exaggeration. The great and unwitting piling up of exaggeration which is a characteristic of the growth of popular rumour is a social product of this type. The literary orator has one style for his speech, a different one for his written essay. It may be his own group of organised preferred reactions that take charge in the latter case, hut in the former he is apt to be the mouthpiece of a social control.

Change the audience to an alien group, and the manner of recall again alters. Here the most important things to consider are the social position of the narrator in his own group, and his relation to the group from which his audience is drawn. If the latter group are submissive, inferior, he is confident, and his exaggerations are markedly along the fines of the preferred tendencies of his own group. If the alien audience is superior, masterly, dominating, they may force the narrator into the irrelevant, recapitulatory method until, or unless he, wittingly or unwittingly, appreciates their own preferred bias. Then he will be apt to construct in remembering, and to draw for his audience the picture which they, perhaps dimly, would make for themselves. Every anthropologist at work in the field knows this, or ought to know it; and yet the details of the social determination of the manner of recall and the recoil of manner upon matter of recall have so far never been carefully studied.

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