2.4 Memory and Information-Processing

Negotiators, mediators, facilitators, as well as parties who are negotiating for themselves have to handle complex issues and multiple pieces of information at once during a conflict resolution process (Alexander, Howieson, & Fox, 2015). This includes remembering events from the past and considering new information. These tasks require all types of memory, including sensory, short-term, and long-term memory. We will now have a look at how these different types of memories function. But first, as a fun introduction to the topic of memory, you may want to watch the following Crash Course video [9:55]:

We will now consider various types of memory functions in more detail. The sensory memory holds incoming information, but only for a few seconds (Gluck et al., 2020).

Figure 2.4.1. Memory Duration by Jennifer Walinga and Charles Stangor used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

As you can see in the above image, our attention selects which information is passed on from the sensory to the short-term memory. Note how attention, which we discussed in more detail in the previous topic, affects what information gets passed on to our memory. As this example shows, all our cognitions and mental processes are somehow interlinked and connected.

Short-Term Memory

The short-term memory includes the so-called “working memory”, which manages control processes such as rehearsal, encoding, decisions and retrieval strategies. Research using the digit-span test (click the link to try this test out yourself) has shown that our short-term memory can hold on average between five to nine items at the same time. You may have heard before that the human mind can pay attention to an average number of seven at the same time (e.g. George Miller’s “magical number 7”).

To retain information, the short-term memory uses several strategies, including “coding” and “chunking”. Coding refers to how information is represented, and there are various types of coding. For example, remembering the sound of your mother’s voice is “auditory coding”, and remembering what your mother looks like is “visual coding”. Chunking, on the other hand, involves combining smaller units into larger, more meaningful units (e.g., instead of trying to memorise the sequence of the numbers 1, 9, 7, and 9 I might “chunk” them as 1979, the year when I was born. Or, if you must remember a suite of words, you could create a short story containing all the words that you need to remember). This process of chunking is relevant to the management of conflict. Conflict management practitioners supporting negotiations between two conflict parties are frequently trained to chunk information relating to complex issues and options when making offers to the other party. You will shortly be referred to a reading by Alexander et al., (2015), pp. 159-162: ‘Making the most of memory’ to explore how knowledge about memory may help prepare for and conduct a negotiation. Before we refer you to the reading, we will consider the working memory in some more detail.

Baddeley’s Working Memory Model

To better understand working memory, Alan Baddeley developed the “working memory model”. According to Baddeley, the working memory is a system with several parts controlling the information being processed. Baddeley initially identified three main components, with a fourth (the episodic buffer) added some 25 years after its inception:

  • The phonological loop, which holds verbal and auditory information
  • The visuospatial sketch pad, which holds visual and spatial information
  • The central executive, which works with information and is responsible for updating and re-organising working memory to balance multiple goals and switch attention between different activities
  • The episodic buffer was added to explain the temporary integration of information gathered from the phonological loop, visuospatial sketchpad, and long-term memory. Its addition to the original model allowed a clearer connection to be made between working memory and long-term memory. This component is controlled by the central executive and transfers information into and out of the long-term memory.
Figure 2.4.2. The four main elements of Baddley’s Model of Working Memory by K. Perry used under a CC BY 4.0 licence

To learn more about the working memory and its components, watch the following 7-minute video: Working Memory (Test + Examples):

As noted in the video, it is assumed that each component of the working memory has a limited capacity and is largely independent of the others. The visual sketch pad is not affected by the phonological loop and vice versa. We can draw some conclusions for conflict management from knowledge about the working memory. For example, when parties need to process a lot of information at once, such as in a multi-issue, multiparty negotiation, it may be advised to present some information visually, rather than verbally to relieve the phonological loop. For example, a mediator may draw the outline of houses, fences and trees concerned in a neighbourhood dispute on a whiteboard.

Key Reading

Alexander et al., (2015), pp. 159-162: Making the most of memory to explore how knowledge about memory may help prepare for and conduct a negotiation.

There are many ways we can get information from the working memory into our long-term memory. If you need to remember a phone number to use in the future, you are likely to engage in the processes of encoding, storing and retrieval of information. Encoding happens when you initially memorise the number. Storing refers to maintaining the memory of the number over time, e.g., by rehearsing it.  The process of retrieving the number when you finally need to use it is known as ‘retrieval’.

We will look at the topic of memory again in the next chapter when we consider the impact of emotions on cognitive processes, including memory.

Long-Term Memory and Priming

To conclude the cognition of memory, we will now have a brief look at the long-term memory, with special attention paid to a phenomenon called “priming”. The long-term memory can be categorised as explicit and implicit memory (Goldstein, 2019; Gluck et al., 2020). The explicit memory (also called declarative memory) comprises the semantic memory (memory of facts and general knowledge) and the episodic memory (memory of personal experiences) (Goldstein, 2019; Gluck et al., 2020). The explicit memory “consists of memory of which a person is aware; you know that you know the information” (Gluck et al., 2020, p. 280). The implicit memory, on the other hand, is “memory that occurs without the learner’s awareness” (Gluck et al., 2020, p. 280). Priming is a phenomenon associated with our implicit memory (Goldstein, 2019), and is, therefore, a process that happens unconsciously.

Figure 2.4.3. Types of Memory by Jennifer Walinga and Charles Stangor used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

Gluck et al. (2020) describe priming as “a phenomenon in which prior exposure to a stimulus can improve the ability to recognise that stimulus later” (p. 88). Priming occurs because exposure to a stimulus creates a sense of familiarity, even when an individual is not consciously aware of the exposure and of the resulting familiarity. As an example, exposure to specific words or suite of words, even when this exposure happens unnoticed, can prompt people to recognise or choose a related word or picture, as has been shown in research (Gluck et al., 2020; Goldstein, 2019; Kassin et al., 2020). If you watched the Crash Course video Perceiving is Believing, you may remember that you were primed to see either a rabbit or a duck, depending on the question asked (bird or mammal).

Exposure to a stimulus can also lead people to behave in a particular way without their awareness, in particular when the stimulus was presented subconsciously (Kassin et al., 2020). The impact of priming has been demonstrated in research, including in a provocative study by Bargh, Chen and Burrows (1996).

The researchers found that:

  • participants whose concept of rudeness was primed interrupted the experimenter more quickly and frequently than did participants primed with polite-related stimuli.
  • participants for whom an elderly stereotype was primed walked more slowly down the hallway when leaving the experiment than did control participants, consistent with the content of that stereotype.
  • participants for whom the African American stereotype was primed subliminally reacted with more hostility to a vexatious request of the experimenter.


For further information about these experiments, refer to Gluck et al. (2020). The authors discuss the implications of this automatic behaviour priming effect for self-fulfilling prophecies, a phenomenon that is frequently noted in the conflict management literature.

To learn about a similar study on how priming may affect the behaviour of individuals, please watch the following 5-minute video.

We are considering priming here because this phenomenon has been discussed in some articles that focus on conflict management. For example, Weitz (2011) discusses how priming may apply to and affect the mediation process. The author suggests that by using words like “listen to, hearing each other, dialogue, options, future” mediators may be able to “prime” parties for collaboration rather than competition (Weitz, 2011, p. 478).

Key Reading

Weitz, D. (2011). The brains behind mediation: Reflections on neuroscience, conflict resolution and decision-making. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 12, 471-490.

Priming may also affect our perception of other’s emotions, which we will discuss in more detail in the next chapter (see also Barrett Feldman, 2017, p. 45).


If you are interested in priming and want to learn more about some specific examples and types of priming, you may also want to read this “easy to digest” description of priming.

Reflection Activity

You may now wish to spend 10 minutes to consider how what you have just learned about memory may help you understand and/or support people in conflict. For example, you might want to note some key learnings from the readings by Alexander et al. (2015) and Weitz (2011). You might also want to think about how the phenomenon of priming may relate to people’s conflict experiences and what it may mean for the process of conflict resolution.


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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.