A study recently published in the The Journal of Consumer Research has demonstrated that people genuinely believe they have autobiographical memories that they whole heartedly believe are real but which are in fact mere memories of adverts.

coke vietnam Study Demonstrates False Memories Implanted Via AdvertisingImage by Canned Revolutions

In the experiment a 100 undergrads were introduced to a made-up pop-corn brand range called “Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn” which a significant proportion of the the group was convinced by the expermenters that they both knew and enjoyed the taste of with just a few adverts.

I would normally review the research myself but @WiredScience has such a good report of the experiment I’m going to filch an extract, I highly recommend checking out the original in full… (while we’re at it, I’ve been really impressed by the standard of the @WiredScience blog recently, I highly recommend adding them to your blog-reading-list!

The students were randomly assigned to various advertisement conditions. Some subjects viewed low-imagery text ads, which described the delicious taste of this new snack food. Others watched a high-imagery commercial, in which they watched all sorts of happy people enjoying this popcorn in their living room. After viewing the ads, the students were then assigned to one of two rooms. In one room, they were given an unrelated survey. In the other room, however, they were given a sample of this fictional new popcorn to taste. (A different Orville Redenbacher popcorn was actually used.)

One week later, all the subjects were quizzed about their memory of the product. Here’s where things get disturbing: While students who saw the low-imagery ad were extremely unlikely to report having tried the popcorn, those who watched the slick commercial were just as likely to have said they tried the popcorn as those who actually did. Furthermore, their ratings of the product were as favorable as those who sampled the salty, buttery treat. Most troubling, perhaps, is that these subjects were extremely confident in these made-up memories. The delusion felt true. They didn’t like the popcorn because they’d seen a good ad. They liked the popcorn because it was delicious.”

The scientists refer to this as the “false experience effect,” since the ads are slyly weaving fictional experiences into our very real lives. “Viewing the vivid advertisement created a false memory of eating the popcorn, despite the fact that eating the non-existent product would have been impossible,” write Priyali Rajagopal and Nicole Montgomery, the lead authors on the paper. “As a result, consumers need to be vigilant while processing high-imagery advertisements.”

The answer returns us to a troubling recent theory known as memory reconsolidation. In essence, reconsolidation is rooted in the fact that every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. What’s disturbing, of course, is that we can’t help but borrow many of our memories from elsewhere, so that the ad we watched on television becomes our own, part of that personal narrative we repeat and retell.

This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory.  It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. And so that pretty picture of popcorn becomes a taste we definitely remember, and that alluring soda commercial becomes a scene from my own life. We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal.

Via @WiredScience

The paper appears to strongly support a lot of the premises that the folk over at Adbusters.org have been basing their work on for a long time.

Edit 28/05/11: After reading the reditt responses to this article I’ve decided to make some updates, thanks to all the folks commenting at Reddit for these tit-bits:

The products in the study were fictitious products but with a real brand name. This does seem to be a strongly limitting factor for the study due to the fact that it is not clear whether the participants had genuine memories of the real products. As a brit Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn” sounded like a completely made up name but this is apparently a very popular popcorn brand in the states which therefore makes the results not quite as grand as presented in the wired article.

orvillepopcorn Study Demonstrates False Memories Implanted Via Advertising

That said, it is still interesting that there was a significant difference between the text advertisements and the visual advertisements. If the participants were all just simply recalling a genuine memory of eating the “fake” popcorn and getting the name a little mixed up then you wouldn’t expect a significant effect between the ad types. It might be interesting to see the experiment repeated with a genuinely made-up snack however I’m pretty sure the results would be somewhat more boring.

Personally, now this has emerged I can’t help but agree with “DaveChild”

“Nice try, Orville Redenbacher popcorn PR dudes.”

There again there are plently of comments like this one by “Kingleary” which suggest a strong theoretical foundation for the rationalle behind the study…

An excellent Chris Ware video on false memories

BBC Documentary on False Memories

rb2 large gray Study Demonstrates False Memories Implanted Via AdvertisingRajagopal, Priyali and Montgomery, Nicole Votolato (2011). I Imagine I Experience, I Like: The False Experience Effect The Journal of Consumer Research, 38

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  • http://www.equilibrica.com Chad English

    This sounds like the game of “Chinese Whispers” (aka “Telephone”, “Pass the Message”, etc.) with the exception that it is you who are passing the message to your new self each time. Looks like a solitaire version is just as humourous, but also more scary when you think about it.

  • RV56

    very confused here. it says “In the experiment a 100 undergrads were introduced to a *made-up* pop-corn brand called “Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn”.

    huh? a made up brand? is this bizarro world I found myself in today or is there a misprint in there somewhere?

  • Pingback: Study Demonstrates False Memories Implanted Via Advertising | Neurobonkers.com | NotSoCrazyNews BETA

  • http://www.gossipbeast.com GosBeas

    This has happened to me before. I saw a local ad for a really cool looking lounge/bar, so about a couple weeks passed and a friend asked if wanted to go the lounge/bar and I agreed on the premise that it’s a cool place because I’ve already been which wasn’t possible considering they were having their grand opening on the night my friend wanted to go. But I felt like I already tried the place out based on the ad I saw.

  • http://interruptedtranmission.com Eli B.

    Wouldn’t our memories be the ‘save’ and not the ‘save as?’ ‘Save’ records over the original file. ‘Save as’ makes a second copy.

  • http://howtolivehappily.info/blog/2011/02/tricks-your-brain-is-playing-on-you/ How To Live Happily

    “Reality” is not what it seems to be. We are living in a dream.

  • D

    This study is flawed because they used a real brand name. The subjects could have just recalled their experience with another similar product of the same brand. It would be interesting to see the experiment repeated with a made up brand.

  • r

    A lot of the packages look similar.

    I couldn’t tell you exactly what kind of Orville Redenbacher popcorn I had last (was it regular butter, extra butter, or “movie theatre” popcorn? I don’t know.), which I think could lead to a false positive if asked whether I tried a specific one.

  • Tom

    There’s a cool word for these false memories: Confabulation

    I love the idea — If I could properly trick myself all the time I’d never have to leave the house but could have memories of being a world traveler. I might even fancy myself a pro ball player with 6 rings. I’d pay for a service that helps me believe all the best of what I wish I’d done in life. Reinsert me into The Matrix! ;)

  • jfs

    This is much less extraordinary than is being played up as.

    You look at a picture of yourself doing something you’ve never done – You can’t remember it so you improvise a little.

    Calling this the “implanting of false memories” is ridiculous.

    At the end she can even guess accurately what one was the false mem.

  • http://www.eqsim.com/blog Jonathan Kaye

    This is a great subject and I’d like to see the original article. However, I cannot locate your citation (link is broken). I see that the latest issue is Vol 38(1), but the referenced article is not among the titles for that issue (June, 2011 — http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/657330). When is the article on the study supposed to be released?

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      Not sure where you got June from, it’s a pre-release of December 2011. The link at the top of the page works fine but it’s behind a mile high pay wall. Check your inbox ;-)

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  • http://www.partnershipdancing.com Partnership Dancing

    Was folk dancing last week, doing a dance we have not done in years. One guy was certain one part was done with the left foot first, but the right first was first, lots of video and documentation. He is meticulous, so he would not have been doing it wrong in the past. His brain had switched things around. Happens all the time in folk dancing. We do not memorize the dances consciously. We have to hear the music to remember what to do.

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