Some Things to Remember About Memory

A lot of the recent buzz about memory is old news.

At least once a week, I read or hear that new research has found that human memories are fallible and that, therefore, survey research and other “traditional” marketing research methods cannot be relied upon. Instead, we should use some new method that is being peddled. The new method may really be old wine in a new bottle. Usually these claims are wrapped in scientific or pseudo-scientific jargon and, on occasion, are made by academics.


The problem is that the frailty of human memories is old news and well-known to professional marketing researchers and survey experts. It also is common sense to humans, who make shopping lists, schedule meetings on their calendar and say things like “Remind me to give Kevin a call.”

There are exceptions, of course. In grad school a housemate of mind had a near-photographic (eidetic) memory. Not surprisingly, he did remarkably well in history courses. It was of no use to debate him about who last cleaned the kitchen, either. He was unusual in many ways, not the least of which was that he was a former intelligence officer in the US National Security Agency. Happily, I remember him as a good guy.

Serious thinking about memory goes back at least as far as Plato and the ancient Greeks. Scientific research on memory is more recent and some of the earliest work was done by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the latter half of the 19th century. It has been continued by other psychologists, and by anthropologists and sociologists.

Remembering how to do things with our body, such as swimming and hitting a baseball, is sometimes called procedural memory. Borrowing from psychologist Engel Tulving’s seminal research, episodic memory refers to remembering events that happened to us personally, such as a family trip or when and where we met our future spouse. Semantic memory comprises factual information about the world, such as the capital of France or in what part of the world the Amazon river is located. This post consists mainly of semantic memory. Flashbulb memory - a detailed and vivid “snapshot” of the moment and circumstances in which surprising and consequential news was heard - was once the rage but now is questioned. Vivid memories may actually be entirely false.

Contrary to what we may gather from movies and detective shows, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. I first learned of this many years ago from a friend who was in law school at the time, but it seems this was already well-established by then. We seldom remember events exactly as they took place and, instead, reconstruct them from bits and pieces of what we recall precisely, filling in the blanks with what is typical in those or similar situations. It’s a kind of data imputation. What we remember about the past is also very much influenced by the present and events that caused us to try to recall an event.

We all know memories fade over time, but are less aware of how distorted they can become. Decay usually is rapid but tends to quickly level off. The ways in which it decays and becomes distorted over time is complex and difficult summarize in a brief article such as this. F.C. Bartlett conducted some ground-breaking research on this subject in the 1930s and his work may be a good place to begin if you'd like to dig more deeply.

Oral tradition is also apparently overrated, based on research in oral cultures and other studies. This probably has some relevance to word-of-mouth in marketing. The next time you hear someone complaining about a friend’s recent experience with their bank, remember that memory is selective and becomes increasingly distorted with re-telling. The bank representative - supplemented by transcripts and possibly recordings of a call - may have a recollection of the event that is quite different and more accurate.

Recently, I tangled with a financial institution, only to realize a few days later - after I’d cooled down - that I was primarily at fault. Had I been surveyed immediately after the episode, the customer satisfaction ratings I’d have given would have been miserable. Fortunately, it is the later, more accurate memory that will influence my future dealings with this institution. Obviously, what we remember about commercials and relay to friends and family about the products advertised can be off the mark, too.

Though it’s easy to step over the line separating science from ideology, some memories are in part collective. Different social groups will “remember” the past of their society or group in different ways. Our families, ethnic and religious groups, our work colleagues and many other factors influence how we remember. As a marketing researcher, I may recall my shopping experiences quite differently from the ways in which “typical” consumers do, though I may be overreaching here.

This brief summary, ironically, is mostly taken from memory of coursework and various reading over the years, aided by internet searches and a recent book by theologian and historian Bart Ehrman. The gist should be correct, however, and I hope you’ve found it interesting and helpful!

Bio: Kevin Gray is president of Cannon Gray, a marketing science and analytics consultancy.

Original. Reposted with permission.