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Why Being Wrong Feels So Right

If you are below 30 years of age you might still remember the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster that disintegrated on lift-off into space many years ago. Right after the accident, the psychologist, Ulric Neisser conducted an interesting experiment that became known as the Challenger Study. He asked his students to write down where they were and what they were doing at the time of the accident. Then, two and a half years later, he asked them to again write down where they were and what they were doing. Recall what they one student said: “that’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened”.
The way our brains remember is not what ‘we’ remember. We confuse fantasy with reality and fill in missing pieces of information of what really happened with fantasy. We might think of memory as being akin to a videotape (with those unable to remember having no film) that records everything in a chronological order. But this analogy is wrong, because we distort memory to fit in with our existing values or beliefs. Memory is also always coupled with an emotion (which I think is part of the reason why we remember some things more vividly than others in the first place) that distorts the memory even more (for example, you enjoyed a holiday less/more than you think you did; that excellent movie was actually shorter than you remember; a forgotten memory returns and you think it is a novel thought). I have a hunch that we distort memory in order to protect our self-esteem, or to save face.

Many scientific studies in the past have shown that eyewitness accounts are also not as correct as judges and prosecutors would like to believe. This has some negative implications for eyewitness accounts in court cases. What people say they said, what you were doing and how they remember events playing out during, for example, a robbery, can at least to a certain extent explain a number of wrongful convictions and (luckily for some) subsequent exonerations thanks in part to the Innocence Project in the U.S.

When you study memory you’ll find that there are a fascinating number of ‘conditions’ that are related to memory, some of which the causes remain unsolved. Not the least of which is paramnesia, which happens where objective experience is confused with fantasy. You might be familiar with Deja Vu (bet you’ve heard this one before somewhere), but Jamias Vu is particularly interesting. To illustrate this point, write the word “door” out 30 times in 60 seconds. Feel anything strange? Most people will experience a feeling of sudden unfamiliarity; “what is a ‘door’ in any case?” This is because words do not (or are not supposed to) exist in isolation. Words as part of language has three characteristics: form, function and meaning. When the word is shaped in a repetitive form (over and over) without its function (as part of a sentence that makes sense) you experience Jamais Vu – the word ‘door’ consequently loses its meaning*.

An illuminating experiment illustrates that we make use of ‘schemas’ or units of knowledge to make sense of the world. People are shown words like “banana”, “apple”, “pear” or “litchi” that they must memorise. After a few seconds, the words are shown to them again and they then have to say which words did not appear in the first instance. Most people say that the word “strawberry”, for example, did appear in the first instance when, in fact, it did not.

we remember the concept (i.e. fruit) and not the individual words 
This is because we remember the concept (i.e. fruit) and not the individual words – a phenomenon known as conceptual encoding – causing you to incorrectly recall something you are quite certain you have seen.

Where does this leave us? Our experiences, feelings and prior beliefs fundamentally influences how we remember things. We distort information so that it makes sense to us so that its fit in with our different schemas. If you have a basic understanding of memory and realise that what is important for you to recall in detail is not necessarily important to your brain. The role of emotion on memory will also become clear. So, if you think you had custard for lunch yesterday … forget it.

* For an interesting account into the nature of human language by psychologist Steven Pinker click here


Marketing Implications

Imagine visiting a restaurant with the best food, music, games to keep the children occupied etc. etc. – virtually fun for the whole family. You arrive at 8 o’clock in the morning – a perfect time for a perfect breakfast. But alas, the service is terrible, the food horrible and the kids can’t stop complaining. But you decide to stay and accepts the manager’s apology, and by the time you really want to leave, you literally have to drag everybody home because they enjoyed it so much. What happened? The sales manager ensured the last bit of experience was up to scratch (or even better) and made the family think that the total experience was awesome. This lesson (which is known as the service recovery paradox) has been studied extensively and pervades many of our everyday decisions. As long as the last bit of consumption of a product/service is satisfactory, we tend to remember the whole experience as emotionally sound and will return for more.

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Werner van Zyl
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