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Brian Williams & the MRX of Memory

Posted On  February 11, 2015

The hubbub over NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ “misremembering” his being in a military helicopter that was shot down by rocket fire over Iraq in 2003, has triggered some of my own old, pre-LRW memories of researching false memory as an applied cognitive psychology doctoral student.

Memory, including false memory, is an important and meaningful topic for science to understand, not only to understand journalistic integrity, as in Brian Williams’ case, but as a tool to better understand ourselves and each other. Memory provides us connective threads that together create a tapestry we call “our life,” and bond us to others. With such a fundamental role, it’s important that we understand how it works, and when it can work differently than we expect. Relationships, careers, and yes, even marketing and business decisions, can many times hang in the balance based on what is remembered, or misremembered.

“Episodic” memory is memory for experienced events. It should not be confused with:

  • “Procedural” memory: things like how to drive a car or dance the tango.
  • “Semantic” memory: things like knowing the capital of North Dakota is Bismarck.
  • “Working” memory: how you remember how to repeat back the following numbers backwards:  9-0-3-5-7-6-8-0-1-3.

Many people assume episodic memory works like a video recorder or computer hard drive. But neuroscience and cognitive psychology assure us that sights and sounds experienced are not recorded, bit for bit onto some medium somewhere in our brains, ready to be retrieved at will, in unchanging detail. Memory is squishy, malleable, ever changing, and sometimes, even invented.

As market researchers, we often rely on the squishy memories of our respondents to provide us with information that drives our recommendations and stakeholder’s business decisions: Have you ever done X? How many times have you done Y? When you last did A, what did you think about B? And so on. As market researchers, it is our responsibility to design approaches and instruments that can simultaneously probe squishy consumer memory, without “jiggling” that squishy stuff so much that it gives us poor information. Furthermore, once we’ve collected our information, it is up to us to place it in the proper context and light in order to make wise business decision recommendations. Poorly-probed, squishy consumer memory taken too much at its word is bound to lead you and, as a result, your stakeholders to their own Brian Williams disaster.

Here are a few things for market researchers to keep in mind about memory as they go about their design, analysis, and recommendation decisions:

Memory is constructive. Our brains aren’t tape recorders. Only disparate, small pieces of our experiences ever get stored in our brains, and when we “remember” we actually “construct” the experience in our mind from those little pieces, using various cognitive processes to fill in gaps and form a consistent narrative. Every time we reconstruct, we can change those little pieces, making them bigger or smaller, different or vanished, so that every reconstruction, every new “remembering” provides an opportunity to change the memory. Therefore, ask your consumers to reconstruct their memories of an experience carefully, and know that simply by doing so, you may be slightly altering their memory of the experience, which can impact later responses.

TIP:  If you are asking someone to recall an experience that may be hard to remember due to the length of time, or a lack of importance, ask them to instead recall broad details. Better yet, ask about more recent experiences: the past 30 days for high-salience events, or the past week for low-salience events.   Don’t bother asking me about the store-level, sales assistance I received for a computer bought last September.

Memory is adaptive. While some may perceive “filling in the gaps” during remembering as disingenuous, the process is efficient.  Storing every little bit of information about every little experience would quickly exhaust us and be a poor use of cognitive resources. Instead, our brains utilize learning and tricks to fill in details that otherwise aren’t usually important enough to remember. This is where things like stereotypes and schemas come into play, including things important to researchers like brands and customer experiences. Did your customer really remember every fine detail of a long-ago experience? Or was their memory of that experience shaped over time, based on the stereotype they harbor for your brand, or by the schema they have for “a Southwest Airlines flight.” Understand the “tricks” your consumers’ brains are using to reconstruct their experiences for your survey (e.g., through the use of Pragmatic Brain Science®). This will help you better contextualize your findings and even become findings in their own right.

TIP: Mobile devices are creating the opportunity for easier, lower cost, longitudinal research.  Rather than asking consumers to remember a 3-month series of activities for an auto purchase, ask them to provide you information at multiple points in their journey. You’ll get real data about automobile buying, rather than their schema for car salesmen or their Brand Stereotype ® for Lexus service.

Memory is experiential. When we remember something, similar parts of our brain that are involved with processing the senses of an experience are activated. In fact, it is this process of “experiencing” memory that is thought to be related to our ability to imagine, forecast, and simulate future experiences, many times for the benefit of our survival and well being. Just as we can simulate in our minds what it must be like to be shot down in a helicopter, which could come in handy should we ever find ourselves in a crashing helicopter, the construction of a memory is our “simulation” of a past experience. This is why even memories that can be shown to be objectively false can to the misrememberer “feel” just as real as a real experience (and sometimes look just as real on a brain scan).

TIP: Market researchers can leverage this phenomenon by easing their respondents into and anchoring them to a specific remembered experience, then probing that sense of experience for information meaningful to the business question at hand. By taking them deep into their experience, researchers can increase the validity of their data and insights and learn about powerful emotions.

Now, I don’t know whether Brian Williams’ “Black Hawk Down” fantasy was just a calculated, deceptive effort meant to bolster his reputation as an adventurous and daring journalist and thus boost his career, or just an innocent collision of unique circumstances, natural desire, and normal memory processes.  Either way, I’m glad it has people talking and thinking about the squishiness of memory—the “stuff” that is our lives.

Written by Jason Brooks
Senior Vice President of Marketing Science
As Senior Vice President of Marketing Science, Jason co-architected LRW’s proprietary Relevant Clarity® branding paradigm and creates sophisticated models for major clients. He is a leader in both LRW’s Pragmatic Brain Sciences Institute® and its AppliedVR™ virtual reality-based research and behavior change practice. He is also a member of mensa and an avid adventurer (and storyteller!)

5 Comments

  1. Great article Jason! Like you, I have a degree in cognitive psychology, and currently work in the world of consumer decision making. I often feel as though the industry lacks a good understanding of memory and its fallacies, which are key to understanding impact of marketing and in modeling purchase behavior. Thanks for writing and sharing this great review!

  2. Great article, with some very usable content. What I’ve read on memory recently encourages me to think of it as a hugely relevant topic NOT being talked about by researchers. I guess we’re just getting to grips with applying what we know from behavioural economics, neuroscience et al and another shake-down…? Well, perhaps not right now. But the science seems to be maturing quickly and surely only a matter of time before we are forced to think more seriously (along the lines you suggest) about what the vagaries of memory mean for the validity of many of our research outputs. The next big thing?

  3. Thanks Jason, a good reminder that there is no such thing as the ultimate truth in market research. Unless we manage to measure people’s behaviour in real-time.

  4. YOUR IMPRESSIVE ARTICLE SHOWS WHY RESEARCHERS CANNOT ASSUME THAT RESPONDENTS REMEMBER WHATEVER THE RESEARCHER WANTS TO KNOW..
    I ALSO HAVE A DEGREE IN COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY AND WORK AS A QUESTIONNAIRE DESIGNER/ADVISER.
    i DO HOPE THAT THE USE OF ELECTRONIC DEVICES WILL REDUCE THE FREQUENCY WITH WHICH PEOPLE ARE ASKED “WHEN DID YOU LAST ….?” HAVE YOU IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS….?” “HOW MUCH DID YOU SPEND WHILE YOU WERE TRAVELING?” ETC. BUT IT WILL REQUIRE A BIG CHANGE OF METHODOLOGY FOR MOST SURVEY AGENCIES.

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