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Simply Speaking: The Psychology of remembering, forgetting, knowledge and common sense

What we remember, why we remember and more interestingly - why we forget. After all, a brand is memory.

By  Shubhranshu SinghOct 3, 2022 7:08 AM
Simply Speaking: The Psychology of remembering, forgetting, knowledge and common sense
A brand’s positioning merges with other things we know or have experienced. We chatter about this with other people and share our thoughts. Its attitudes become organized. Its values become established. (Representational image: Dan Farrell via Unsplash)

A brand is a memory. The function of memory is supreme in marketing. Imagine if you got a chance to experience everything you ever wanted from life in a day but with the condition that you could retain no memory of it after the day was over. Would you go ahead and enjoy that dream or would you be overcome with deep regret over the fact that you would not remember or be able to recount /recall any of it?

A brand is reduced to nothing if it can’t evoke associations in your memory.

We know that human memory is weak. We hardly remember a fraction of the life we live. We all see some old photographs and wonder why we have absolutely no recall of that day or event. Our concept of who we are -by itself- is a part fact, part fiction construct in which memory plays an enabling role.

In the late 1970s, Harvard University professor Roger Brown co-wrote a paper called ‘Flashbulb Memories’ that became the classic study on a memory phenomenon. Brown and his colleague, James Kulik, explained a special kind of autobiographical memory in which people give a highly detailed, vivid account of the exact moment that they learned about an event with a high shock value.

The paper argues that culturally and personally significant events, such as the assassination of a world leader, trigger the operation of a special imprint that creates a permanent record. Almost like a flash photograph, we can picture where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing when we heard the shocking news—such as the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. These memories are vivid, accurate, and enduring. However other researchers such as Ulric Neisser have contested this special mechanism theory, suggesting that durability stems from the fact that the memories are thought about, discussed and recalled repeatedly after the event, by the individual and the wider world, and so are continually reinforced within memory.

This work of understanding memory as a psychological phenomenon has been on for more than a century.

1885 - Hermann Ebbinghaus describes the ‘forgetting curve’ in Memory.

1890 - William James made a distinction between short-term, primary memory and long- term, secondary memory.

1932 - Frederic Bartlett’s studies showed that recollective memory is not simply a matter of retrieval; it is an active reconstruction of past events, and he listed seven ways in which a story may be misremembered in his book ‘Remembering’

1956 - George Armitage Miller published his paper ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’.

1972 - Endel Tulving made the distinction between semantic and episodic memory.

1987 - In Autobiographical Memory, American psychologist David Rubin suggests that we remember landmark events that define us as people.

1995 - Elizabeth Loftus studies retroactive memory in ‘The Formation of False Memories’.

Let us consider this from a collective, social point of view.

Serge Moscovici proved that for the social mass, memory feeds consensus. And in doing so, a common acceptance redefines such memory. To the collective, knowing is not as crucial as ‘knowing about it’. We may not know programming in computer languages, but we use dozens of computing applications throughout the day. We may not know automobile engineering, but we drive vehicles. Likewise, we may not ‘understand’ the depth of a brand or brand-consumer engagement, but we bracket it as something that everyone acknowledges at the least.

Advertising often works like that. We hear or see something that arouses our curiosity. Everyone is eager to transmit knowledge and keep a place in the circle of conversation. The collective conversations continue, allowing everyone to know more. Awareness builds up. On everyone’s part, the goal is not to advance knowledge, but to be “in the know.”

A brand’s positioning merges with other things we know or have experienced. We chatter about this with other people and share our thoughts. Its attitudes become organized. Its values become established. Society begins to use new phrases and visions to describe a collective common sense about tools, institutions, concepts, symbols and of course, brands.

In the late 1960s, some social psychologists, known as the social constructivists, argued that individuals were wrongly portrayed as merely perceiving their social worlds rather than constructing them. Serge Moscovici , in 1961, conducted a piece of research ‘Psychoanalysis: its image and its public’, that became a classic study of the way people absorb ideas and understand their world. Moscovici explored the belief that all thought and understanding is based on the workings of “social representations.” These are the many concepts, statements, and explanations that are created in the course of everyday interactions and communications between people. They allow us to orientate ourselves in our social and material worlds and provide us with the means to communicate within a community. They are, in effect, a collective “common sense”—a shared version of reality—that is built through the mass media, science, religion, and interaction between social groups.

The process allows the unfamiliar to become familiar and paves the way for science to become common sense.

Daniel Schacter -a giant in the field – is a Professor at Harvard where he has set up the Schacter Memory Laboratory. He claims that forgetting is an essential function of human memory, allowing it to work efficiently. Some of the experiences we go through and the information we learn may need to be remembered, but much is irrelevant and so is “deleted,”

Sometimes, however, the process of selection fails. What should have been tagged as useful information and stored for future use is removed from memory and therefore forgotten; or—conversely—trivial or unwanted information that should have been removed is kept in our memory.

Storage is not the only area of memory functioning with potential problems. The process of retrieval can cause confusion of information, giving us distorted recollections. Schacter lists seven ways in which memory can let us down: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. He called these the “seven sins of memory.”

The first three Schacter called “sins of omission,” or forgetting, and the last four are “sins of commission,” or remembering. Each sin can lead to a particular type of error in recollecting information.

The first transience involves the deterioration of memory over time. Each time we remember the event , it is reprocessed in the brain, altering it slightly.

Absent-mindedness, the sin that manifests itself in mislaid keys and missed appointments, is not so much an error of recollection but of selection for storage. Sometimes we do not pay enough attention at the time we do things such as when we put down keys, so the information is treated by the brain as trivial and not stored for later use. The sin of blocking is when a stored memory cannot be retrieved, often because another memory is getting in its way. An example of this is the “tip-of-the-tongue” syndrome, we all know very well.

The “sins of commission” are slightly more complex, but no less common. In misattribution, the information is recalled correctly, but the source of that information is wrongly recalled. It is similar in its effect to suggestibility, where recollections are influenced as they are recalled, for example, in response to a leading question or setting. The sin of bias also involves the distortion of recollection; this is when a person’s opinions and feelings at the time of recalling an event colour its remembrance.

Sometimes we forget due to transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking.

Other times, our memory is perplexed because of misattribution, suggestibility, bias.

Finally, we end up remembering things we want to forget through sheer persistence

Remember that!

About Serge Moscovici

Born Srul Hersh Moskovitch to a Jewish family in Braila, Romania, Serge Moscovici attended school in Bucharest, but was expelled due to anti-Semitic laws. After surviving the violent pogrom of 1941, he moved constantly around the country. He learned French during World War II, and co-founded an art journal, Da, which was banned due to censorship laws. In 1947, he left Romania and reached France a year later.

In 1949, he gained a degree in psychology, then a PhD under the supervision of Daniel Lagache, with the support of a refugee grant. He co-founded the European Laboratory of Social Psychology in 1965, and as a professor of psychology taught in prestigious universities across the US and Europe. He died in November 2015 in Paris.

Key works

1961 Psychoanalysis

1976 Social Influence and Social Change

1981 The Age of the Crowd

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on Oct 3, 2022 7:08 AM