Our malleable memories

Editor's note: James Forr is a director, and Dominique Dove a senior research associate, at Pittsburgh-based research firm Olson Zaltman.

Some years ago, world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, exhausted after a bravura performance at Carnegie Hall, carefully laid his $2.5 million Stradivarius cello in the trunk of a taxi, clambered into the back seat and rode off to his hotel. About 20 minutes later he arrived, paid the fare and trudged into the lobby, where he was struck by a thunderbolt.

He had left his $2.5 million cello in the trunk of that New York City cab.

The cellist talked to hotel security, hotel security talked the police, the police talked to the cab company and within three hours, the cello was back, safe and sound, and everyone lived happily ever after. Nonetheless, you hear a story like that and ask yourself, How could anyone be such a space cadet?

Unfortunately, though, memory makes fools of us all. None of us is immune. Given that we, as market researchers, rely heavily on people’s memories of experiences with products and services, this poses a significant problem.

We like to believe that our memory is like a snapshot – a true-to-life, pixel-by-pixel representation of how an event occurred. In reality, though, our memory is more like clay. It is malleable and is shaped and molded over the passing weeks, months and years. Sometimes little pieces break off and tumble onto the floor, never to be seen again. Each time we recall a memory, it is apt to change slightly. Our unconscious mind fills in gaps, conflates multiple experiences into one and makes tweaks based on others’ suggestions and our own evolving sense of self. In short, memory is reconstructive, not reproductive.

Daniel Schacter, former chair of Harvard University’s Department of Psychology, published a landmark book entitled, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Four of his “sins” are particularly relevant for market researchers. We need to understand these sins and to devise strategies for working around them.

Before describing the sins, we should explain a bit more about how our mind processes past experiences. Psychologists identify three types of memory. Procedural memory is our memory of how to conduct a particular task. For instance, if you have cooked a Thanksgiving turkey each of the last 10 years, you should not have to open up a cookbook this year and relearn the process. The old cliché that “You never forget how to ride a bike” is true. Procedural memory tends to be quite stable.

Next is semantic memory. This is our memory for general facts, such as “What is the origin of Thanksgiving?” Semantic memory is highly variable, depending on how often a piece of information gets repeated and how relevant it is to an individual.

The third category is episodic memory – our recollection of particular experiences in our lives. Trying to recall what you did on Thanksgiving in 2006, for example, draws on your episodic memory. In market research, we rely heavily on consumers’ episodic memories. Unfortunately, this form of memory is extremely volatile and highly subject to distortion. The four key sins discussed below – and derived from Schacter’s work – relate mostly to lapses of episodic memory.

The sin of transience: Details mix as the clock ticks

What did you do at work yesterday? You probably can remember that in some detail. Now what did you do at work last Tuesday? You likely are struggling to recall any details at all. You can rattle off, broadly, what you probably did that day (drove into the parking lot, drank coffee, checked e-mail, went to some meetings, took the elevator down to the lobby and headed home) but odds are that most if not all of the particulars are gone. As time passes, we have more and more similar experiences, which cause the specifics of previous routine experiences to fade away.

Of course, time doesn’t always erase. If you are reading this on vacation and last Friday was your last day at the office before heading out, you probably can remember a fair number of details because no similar events are getting in the way. Alternatively, if you received word last Friday that you won a prestigious industry award, you might remember that moment quite clearly for years. (Then again, you might not. Even so-called “flashbulb memories” – recollections of where you were on 9/11 or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded – that seemingly sear themselves into our minds are less reliable than we think they are and can grow dim or distorted over time.)

The sin of suggestibility: A nudge can make you fudge

The word “suggestibility” doesn’t necessarily mean someone is trying to mislead people. Nonetheless, we need to be careful about the words we use, because it is exceedingly easy to cause someone to misremember an experience, just based on how we frame our questions.

Elizabeth Loftus is a pivotal figure in memory research and much of her work centers on how subtle cues or “suggestions” can lead our memory astray. In one landmark study, she showed people simulated video of two cars colliding at an intersection. One group of participants was asked what happened when the cars “hit” each other. The other group was asked what happened when the cars “smashed into” each other. The people in the latter group were more likely to recall seeing broken glass (even when there was no broken glass) and provided significantly higher estimates of the cars’ speed.

In a more recent Loftus study, she studied army soldiers who were participating in a training exercise designed to simulate what it would be like to be a prisoner of war. Soldiers endured 30 minutes of intense questioning and hostile treatment. Later they had to identify their interrogator. Loftus found that researchers could feed the soldiers pieces of information that caused them to finger someone who looked nothing at all like the person who actually conducted the interrogation. Soldiers could be led to insist that the interrogator was wearing a uniform when in fact he was not. They could be led to insist that the interrogator was carrying a gun when in fact he was not.

This sin has real-life ramifications. Over the past 20 years, hundreds of American prisoners have been freed thanks to DNA evidence. Many of these prisoners were incarcerated largely on the basis of false eyewitness testimony. If memories can fail in the courtroom, where the stakes are extraordinarily high for all involved, then they certainly can fail in the marketing research facility where consumers are trying to recall their experiences with products that may, in the overall scheme of things, play a relatively unimportant role in their lives.

The sin of bias: Today shapes yesterday

Northwestern University is renowned for many things. Football is not one of those things. On the Friday before each of three big games in 1995, Northwestern football fans were asked to predict the likelihood that their Wildcats would win the next day. (As it turned out, the team, which had been awful for decades, was in the midst of the best season in its history. They won all three games.)

Then on the Monday following each game, another group of Northwestern fans was asked to remember how they thought their team would fare. The people who were asked to remember what they thought would happen were much more likely to say that they believed Northwestern would win compared to the people who had to go out on a limb and actually predict what would happen.

This is the “I-knew-it-all-along” syndrome. We all unconsciously try to manage our cognitive dissonance – that discomfort we feel when we recognize that our various thoughts and feelings are in conflict. We think our favorite team is going to lose but then they surprise us and win. For some reason, we can’t quite handle this, so we unconsciously revise our recollection of our previous beliefs.

This kind of revision occurs constantly. We tend to mold our memories of the beginning of a personal relationship based on how we currently feel about that relationship. If someone is experiencing physical pain, she will tend to remember earlier painful experiences as being much worse compared to when she is recalling those memories at a moment when she is pain free.

The sin of misattribution: Our eyes’ lies

In a delightful study, a group of people who had visited either Disneyland or Disney World were shown a mock print ad that depicted Bugs Bunny standing outside the Magic Kingdom. When asked about it later, more than 30 percent of subjects who saw that ad claimed that they either specifically recalled meeting Bugs at a Disney resort or at least had a vague, general memory of doing so.

The problem here is obvious. Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character. He wouldn’t dare show his face at a Disney property.

This helps to explain why similar advertising runs together and why consumers often struggle to remember accurately whether they saw an ad for a particular brand.

Of course, the more consistent and ostensibly reasonable the “lie,” the more likely someone is to commit the sin of misattribution. If researchers tried to finagle people into thinking they saw a Martian at Disney World, no one would have fallen for that. Also, the more credible the source, the more easily that person can wheedle someone into a misattribution – even if they aren’t trying to. A police officer or a doctor (or a nattily-attired market research professional) is more likely to accidentally invite misattribution than a teenager in a clown costume.

Golden haze of memory

Sometimes it doesn’t matter if someone misremembers the details of an experience. A vacation, for example, is a classic example of post-consumptive experience. On that trip to the beach in Miami last year, you might have been hot and sweaty and covered in mosquito bites and your screaming toddlers might have been driving you nuts. But through the gauzy, golden haze of your vacation memory, you might only recall the abundant sunshine and that one lovely evening spent sipping a margarita with your husband by the pool. So where do you go this year? Miami, it is.

Actually, it can be instructive for a brand to understand the ways in which people misremember an experience. In the U.K., Pizza Hut interviewed customers as they left the restaurant and then followed up a week later to ask again about the experience. Not only did many customers forget some of the high points of their visit but they also invented negative details (like long waits or dirty tables) that were not part of their original account. Pizza Hut used these insights to make memories of the positive aspects of the restaurant visit more “sticky” and the results in a handful of pilot restaurants have been overwhelmingly favorable.

However, there are times, of course, when it is important to understand what actually happened during a consumer experience. When this is the case, researchers can employ several tactics that circumvent the sins of memory.

Be selective with surveys. Surveys are useful for getting answers to relatively straightforward questions that don’t require much intense reflection. If the election were today, for whom would you vote? Which brands come to mind when you think about pasta sauce? How long is your morning commute?

Among the things that surveys do much less well is to paint an unbiased retroactive portrait of what a consumer was thinking, feeling or doing at a specific point in time. As we have seen, humans tend to reconstruct the past based on what they know about the present but researchers often underestimate how dramatic that reconstruction can be. Consumers will answer questions about what they were thinking about back then but those answers should never be taken as gospel truth.

Be wise with your words. As Elizabeth Loftus learned in her prisoner of war simulation, subtle cues, like the words we use when crafting our questions, can unconsciously alter how people remember an event. Even the order in which questions are posed can scramble people’s recollections.

Researchers must take special care to avoid leading questions, which sometimes is easier said than done. If a respondent can answer a question with a yes or a no you probably are leading them. If you preface a question with, “In other words, it sounds like you are saying…” you definitely are leading them. A better approach is to probe respondents with open-ended questions and neutral language. Rather than asking, “What problems did you experience during your stay at the Bedbug Inn?” you would better advised to ask, “Can you tell me more about your experience at the Bedbug Inn?”

Another technique is to incorporate the respondents’ own language in your follow-up probes. If a satisfied guest tells you, “My stay at the Bedbug Inn was like a night in heaven,” it would be valuable to follow up with a question like, “What happened that made your stay like a night in heaven?” In other words, be mindful about going where consumers take you rather than taking them where you want to go.

Sidestep the sins. Although marketers frequently want to learn what was going through a consumer’s mind as she made a purchase, often the least helpful question is, “What was going through your mind when you made that purchase?”

As time passes, memories of specific everyday purchase decisions congeal into an undifferentiated blob, so unless the decision was made just a few moments ago or unless it was a major purchase that involved considerable research and conscious deliberation, that memory is probably gone. Furthermore, most human thought is unconscious, which implies that even if consumers do remember making a purchase it is unlikely they can accurately self-report all of the factors that subconsciously influenced their decision.

A surefire strategy for overcoming the sins of memory is simply to stop relying on memory. The fantasy world ideal, of course, would be to mind-meld with the consumer and literally get into her head at the moment of the purchase decision. But despite what some neuromarketers might have us believe, that still is not possible and may never be, so we have to seek out the next-best approaches.

Shop-alongs, observational research and diaries help us detour the murky underworld of memory and get us a couple of steps closer to what a consumer is thinking or doing in the moment. Although all of these old-school methodologies have their shortcomings, they at least can generate some hypotheses about what is driving behavior and purchase.

Experience-sampling uses text-messaging to capture consumers’ thoughts and behaviors in real time – or close to it. For instance, if I want to track your daily water consumption, rather than asking you to estimate it from memory or even tally it at the end of the day, I could send you a text every 60 minutes asking how many glasses you drank in the last hour. Similarly, if I want to understand a patient’s journey with depression, I could text that patient at specific intervals and ask, “How are you feeling right now?” Experience-sampling relies on self-reporting and the data often lacks context and richness but the methodology largely sidesteps the sins of memory and can produce a significant number of data points for analysis.

Implicit testing and deep-dive interviews cannot be conducted in the moment but they can reveal the unconscious meanings that lead a consumer to select one brand over another. If you are talking to a shopper who has purchased the same brand of detergent for 20 years, what went through her mind as she entered the laundry aisle is nearly irrelevant. This is an automatic, habitual purchase; she was more likely to have been thinking about her daughter’s soccer game or last night’s Game of Thrones than anything to do with detergent. In cases like this, it might be more valuable to understand what people don’t know they know – the implicit meanings that consumers attach to a brand or the deep emotional relevance of a particular category in a consumer’s life. In other words, you may find it more insightful to explore consumer psychology rather than purely consumer memory.

Must think carefully

In short, understanding what people experienced or what they were thinking during a past experience seems tantalizingly simple but we should not be led too easily into temptation. We must not assume that a memory is a photographic representation of what occurred because what people recall can differ, in ways both large and small, from what actually happened. As marketers, we must think carefully about how and when we ask questions about a past experience. We must try to get closer to being in the moment with consumers rather than relying solely on their reproductions of the past. And, sometimes we should reconsider whether consumer memory really is the key that will unlock the strategic insights we need.