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.
Image 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.
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.
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”…
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
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