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Bad Memories: Why Memories Aren’t Always Reliable

Although memory and how memories are formed is important for marketers to understand, it’s equally important to know that memory isn’t always reliable. In fact, memories are easily influenced by a wide variety of factors, altering the way we recall events and information.

We tend to imagine our memory storage as a library, where pieces of information are stored in an orderly fashion and cataloged for accurate recall, like picking a book off a shelf. However, as we discussed in our previous blog, it’s more accurate to describe memory storage as an interconnected network, where activating one piece of information sparks the activation of several other pieces.

When we recall a memory, the brain reconstructs it from a whole network of feelings, sights, sounds and related memories. This means that, sometimes, memories can be warped by preconceptions, incorrect associations, or decay over time. Rather than starting at the smaller details and working its way up to the larger context, the brain recalls memories with a top-down approach. It starts by recalling the wider picture and then filling in the subsequent details. How those details are filled in can be prone to suggestion, which in turn can guide your resulting thoughts, feelings or behavior.

Taking Short-Cuts

A study found that, in questioning witnesses to car crashes, the witnesses estimated the speed of the cars to be, on average, 7mph faster if the researcher said the cars “smashed into” each other rather than making use of the more neutral term “hit” each other. Witnesses weren’t intentionally lying in either case. Their brains were just using this suggestive context to try and fill a memory gap. They definitely remembered the crash, but the finer details were hard to recall more accurately.

In the same vein, eyewitness testimonies can often be false or misleading as people’s memories become clouded when they learn new details about a crime or event (either from the police interviewing them, or by watching the news and listening to rumors). Their brains then try to match up this new information with the preexisting information from their memory to create a whole picture – even if that picture isn’t what truly happened.

When our brains take short-cuts to fill in the details of our memories, understand a new piece of information, or make a decision, these short-cuts are called heuristics. Most heuristics are a useful short-hand for how we view and navigate the world, but they can sometimes be inherently wrong or lead us to make false conclusions.

For example; the scarcity heuristic is the concept that people overestimate the value of an object if they perceive that object to be scarce. An object can be scarce both in terms of the amount available or in the time available to acquire it. The idea of scarcity is often created through marketing tactics such as: “only 5 left in stock!” messaging and one-day-only deals: these both lead people to believe they are missing out if they don’t acquire the object right away.

Surely it wouldn’t be scarce if it wasn’t rare, right? Intellectually, we all understand that this is simply not the case. The number of products available for mass consumption are in abundance and there will always be a deal up for grabs, but the shopping frenzies during events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday show that we are still very prone to this heuristic, and it probably causes us to spend even more money in the long run.

Another common heuristic is satisficing. When we’re making a decision – for example, buying a new shampoo – we have a list of characteristics and requirements the right choice needs to have. You might want it to smell a certain way, be formulated specifically for sensitive skin, and be within your budget. While browsing choices, you may find a brand for sensitive skin that is within your budget and, while the scent isn’t amazing, it’s one you can live with. Rather than continuing to search for better options, you decide to purchase the first option. This is satisficing: choosing the first option that meets most (but not all) of your desired criteria, even if you know that there may be better options out there. It’s just easier, simpler and requires less effort to buy the one you’ve already found.

What does this mean for marketers?

Marketers need to be aware that consumer memories are not always reliable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s possible to take advantage of the heuristics that we’re all prone to.

Consumers use heuristics to make their purchase decisions all the time. As outlined above, the scarcity heuristic and satisficing are just two examples of the kinds of choices consumers make without realising it.

To take advantage of the scarcity heuristic, there are a couple of tactics marketers can use. One of the most obvious – and effective – techniques one can use is having one-day-only sales or creating limited-availability ranges. People who offer a service can also stress that their time is limited or bookings are filling up quickly. A great example of the scarcity heuristic in action is The Shed at Dulwich, an entirely fake restaurant that a Vice documentary-maker created a profile for online. He created photos of fine-dining-esque food, faked rave reviews on TripAdvisor and, most importantly, made it very hard for people to make a booking at the restaurant. The opening night was quickly perceived to be the exclusive event of the season and, even as the patrons were seated in what was clearly someone’s backyard, they raved about the food, which in actual fact was all warmed up microwave dinners. The scarcity of the opportunity to visit this restaurant made them think it was valuable when it was anything but.

The satisficing heuristic is also a reminder to marketers that their USP should be front-and-center in their marketing, particularly at points of sale and on packaging. Consumers don’t typically read fine print and, if they more easily find your competitor’s product meets their needs, they won’t waste their time checking you out, too. This is also why being easily noticed is important – if you’re seen as the first option among many that a customer is considering, the chances of your product being purchased over a competitor’s are much higher.

The final aspect of memory’s unreliability one should bear in mind is how it pertains to market research. A lot of traditional market research relies on self-reporting from consumers, who are often required to search their memories for brand impressions and experiences to report back on. Focus groups are particularly vulnerable to false memories, as 'group think' can influence how people recall their memories, and certainly how they convey them to the researcher. In surveys, questions need to be worded very specifically to avoid adding bias to someone’s answer. Again, consumers don’t lie on purpose. They believe the version of events their brains have constructed, even if they’re not correct. As most marketers know, making marketing decisions based on this kind of data can be risky.

So, how can marketers make solid business decisions if the memories they’re basing those decisions on aren’t entirely accurate? Here’s where advancements in the Behavioural Sciences and our understanding of the emotional drivers and decision making process behind consumer behaviour can help. Neuromarketing, the application of neuroscience in marketing research, uses brain monitoring, eye-tracking and biometric technologies to better understand and influence the implicit, subconscious drivers of consumer behaviour. The field enables us to measure a consumer’s level of attention, the emotions they are experiencing as well as their cognitive reactions as they interact with a brand in the real world, in real time. This leads to a more detailed, accurate breakdown of how consumers are experiencing a brand touch point than traditional market research can achieve.

If creating lasting, reliable, positive memories of your brand is something that you’re focused on, this technology can help you be much more precise in accomplishing it. Think about the difference between trying to find a location based on someone’s badly-drawn directions vs using a GPS: you’ll get where you’re going eventually, but you’ll take fewer wrong turns along the way.

References and further reading:

Cerf, M. and Garcia-Garcia, M. Consumer Neuroscience (2017). MIT Press.


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