Memory Mini Series Part 3: How Memories Can Be Altered and Why We Forget Things


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Memory is one of my favorite topics in the behavioral sciences, so we did a podcast series on them. This newsletter is the last of a mini-series on memory, the series finale. Last time, I wrote about the network structure of memory and how the different types of memories we have connected in surprising ways from the information we shared on our second podcast. This issue will discuss how we store, retrieve, and forget memories. If you’d like to listen to part 1 of our mini-series you can find that episode here.

Memories are essential to Customer Experience, and their importance is often underestimated.

Memories link us to our past while at the same time affecting our actions today. If you think about it, memories define us.

How We Remember Things and Make It Easier for Ourselves

When we talk about memory, two core processes handle storing and retrieval. However, to understand how things are stored, you must first know the limitations of memory. When items are not stored, we are not working with the system as designed. In other words, we expect too much out of memory.

As we discussed last weekmemories exist in network structures. So, if you want to remember something, it helps to tie it to other ideas already there. For example, mnemonic devices, like reminders or cues that link ideas, serve as a shortcut to make remembering easier.

Some people use visualization of different rooms where they place various parts of the information they want to remember. Then, they “walk” through the rooms, collecting the data. However, some people remember things based on images or smells, called multisensory memories. The additional inputs help solidify the information a person needs to remember.

So, suppose we can reduce a complex set of ideas into an easy-to-remember acronym. In that case, it becomes easier for us to remember because we’re compressing that into a smaller idea. For example, anyone who has taken Trigonometry and learned about trigonometric functions (or is the parent of someone who is) is likely familiar with SOHCAHTOA. This acronym stands for sine equals opposite over hypotenuse (SOH), cosine equals adjacent of the hypotenuse (CAH), and tangent equals opposite over adjacent (TOA). This trig trick is an example of taking a more extensive, challenging-to-remember set of info and making it easier by connecting the ideas to a shortcut.

How Do We Retrieve Memories

So, now that we have some context about how we remember things and make that easier let’s look at how we retrieve memories once we form them. But, first, it would be helpful to understand the Zeigarnik Effect. Named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik that first identified this phenomenon in 1927, the term describes how we remember interrupted tasks easier than completed tasks.

In other words, goals influence our memory. If you have an active pursuit, you are more likely to remember things related to that goal. However, once the purpose is satisfied, you free up that memory to work on something else. For example, if you cram for an exam in school, you remember that information. However, a week later, you would fail that same exam. Why? The failure is an example of the Zeigarnik effect; you remembered it when you needed to pass the exam but let it go to make room for other information afterward.

Repetition is another way we remember things. For example, when you learned the multiplication tables or the alphabet, you repeated them over and over.

I have an example regarding the repetition of something driving me mad at the moment. We had a sofa ordered and scheduled a pick up for the old one the same day the sofa company would deliver the new one. The old one left, as expected, but the new one didn’t make it. So, now we sit on fold-up chairs in the living room while we wait—and I am thoroughly annoyed. Every time I go to the lounge and sit on what is not my new sofa and is not comfortable, I get more aggravated, reinforcing my bad experience with the sofa company.

This example shows that I am an impatient and unforgiving customer when things are late. However, it also indicates the reinforcement possible for memory with repetition and powerful emotions.

Other things easily remembered are what goes in first and last. For example, accountants talk about the LIFO method, or last-in, first-out for inventory. LIFO means that the last thing ordered will be the first one sold.

Our memories can work similarly to LIFO; only we call it something else in psychology. The first thing remembered within a category or setting tends to stick, called the Primacy Effect. After that, however, the last item will stick, too, which is the Recency Effect.

Forgetting It

Have you ever walked into a room purposefully and then forgotten what you went there for? It’s maddening.

It is impossible to talk about memory without also talking about forgetting. We have already discussed the difference between short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory is for things like one-time passwords, and long-term memory is for things like your childhood. However, one influence on them that we haven’t talked about is storage decay.

Storage decay gets back to some of the biology of memory. So, we think about memory in our minds instead of our brains. It can feel magical; we store this information in a certain way with networks and connections, all of which are abstract representations of the biology occurring. However, the reality is memories are chemical traces left in the neurons. As you remember things, you leave more profound chemical traces or overlay those chemical traces, which leads to a stronger memory.

However, chemical traces decay. So, the information we haven’t engaged with in a long time becomes weaker and more challenging to access than those memories we access all the time. This effect is memory decay. In other words, it goes away if we’re not using something.

(An interesting parallel phenomenon is the Google Effect. The Google Effect is that we use our memory strategically. As a smartphone and tablet-enabled species, we humans don’t remember facts as well as we used to because we have access to information. We now remember how to get to the data rather than the information itself.)

Our memories are not as reliable as we think, either. Other people can manipulate you to misremember things. Elizabeth Loftus is an expert in misremembering things. Loftus talks about some ways that our memories can go wrong.

For example, she describes an experiment where two groups watch the same video of a car accident. In both cases, she asks the viewers to estimate the speed of one of the cars in the accident. However, she uses different words in her request. In one question, she uses the term “hit,” and in the other, she uses the word “smashed”:

  • How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?
  • How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?

The group that heard the word smashed estimated that the car’s speed was much faster than the group where she’d used the word hit. Later, the group that listened to the word smash were twice as likely to say that there was glass on the floor from the car wreckage. However, in the video, there was no glass.

So, we think of memory like a Word document, where we save it and retrieve it just like we kept it. However, that is not accurate at all. Our memories are fluid and easy to influence and change. Recent research on memory suggests that every time we remember something, we erase that memory and rewrite it. So, it is possible that every time we remember something, we remember it differently.

What Does This All Mean?

Memory is critical from a customer experience perspective. Professor Daniel Kahneman said we don’t choose between experiences; we choose between the memory of an experience. So, understanding how memories form is essential to designing an experience.

What we need to do is a few things. First, we should consider how we handle mistakes in the experience. For example, if you have a system requiring the customer to recount their problem more than once, you might have them rewrite the memory and make it worse every time they repeat it.

Part of this is natural. When telling a story, we try to focus on the elements that make it compelling.

But, if it was a problem, finding and emphasizing the exciting parts will make them more extreme over time. So, even the most conscientious person trying to be accurate might end up remembering the story more negatively over time.

So, consider if you are building into your procedures a process that makes customers’ negative experiences more memorable, intense, and damaging over time. Perhaps look for ways to minimize repetition of the negative experience or find ways to turn the experience positive, quickly, and work on repetition there on the positive side.

The language you use is essential, too. As we learned from the word smashed, it matters how you ask questions.

In our Memory Maker Training, we cover these issues. Once you’ve defined the experience you’re trying to deliver, making a customer feel valued or cared for, whatever it may be, the words, phrases, and body language should provide that. They should reinforce making that memory.

In addition, we would have you consider how those memories are structured and what the inputs are to those structures. How are individual memories made? Are they implicit or episodic? Emotional or explicit? It is essential to map out how your inputs into the experience help form these memories.

Customer Science takes the concept of memory full circle. Customer Science is the future variant of customer experience, built upon an understanding of behavioral science, data, and AI. So, are you making the AI system with that in mind to replicate customers’ memories and the data part of Customer Science? Are you dragging in the data sources to build that network of memories?

We can draw an interesting parallel between artificial intelligence and human memory. It turns out that a lot of AI systems are just about looking for similarities and co-occurrences. Our long-term memories form the same way. This network structure is formed by things happening at the same time in nature. So if we’ve got an AI system that can track how often ideas co-occur or experiences co-occur in our systems, there may be opportunities to see what ideas our consumers associate in their minds.

I hope this mini-series has been helpful. We believe that memory is essential to customer loyalty and retention in your experiences. Understanding how and why they form, where they are stored, how you retrieve them, and why you forget them is essential to designing a customer strategy that works for your organization. Now, it’s your job not to forget.

If you have a business problem that you would like some help with, contact me on LinkedIn or submit your pickle here. We would be glad to hear from you and help you with your challenges.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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