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Memory miniseries part 1: How are memories formed?

22nd Sep 2022
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This newsletter is the first of three I will publish on the subject of Memory. Memory is fascinating and a broad topic related to experiences. Therefore, one issue of the newsletter won't be enough. In this issue, we explain why memories are essential to experiences, when we use them to decide sometimes, and how memories form.

So, why is memory crucial? It's essential because understanding people, particularly customer behavior, mainly involves memory. We remember things like previous experiences, relationships, and emotions as we go about our lives, and these memories guide us forward. 

Therefore, memory is vital to understanding almost everything, even at the moment. Memories define us, from what to do to who we trust. The context of memory helps us understand the cues that influence our actions. 

Heuristics and Memory

Sometimes when we think about things or make decisions, we use shortcuts called Heuristics. I have written about a few of these before in this newsletter. An example is the Evaluability Heuristic, which describes how we assign more importance to something easy to evaluate in a decision. Most of us do this at some point or another. For example, we might buy a car because we like the seats' comfort. Or vote for a politician because we think they would be more fun to have a beer with than the other.

But is that because of memory or how our brains work? The Evaluability Heuristic's universal nature indicates that it might have more to do with how our brains work than memory. 

However, we learn other shortcuts from memory. For example, Stereotyping is when we make assumptions about people or situations based on experience. An example is a bias we have for physical attractiveness. Often, we assume attractive people are more friendly or successful, or other positive things, than we would someone we find less attractive, which research suggests is a widespread assumption people make. But, again, memory influences this intuitive response. So, as we receive cues about the world around us, our memory forms those into these shortcuts that we can easily access.

So, does memory bias us and lead to specific decision rules or heuristics? Yes, memory can prejudice us in many ways.

Memory and Customer Experiences

Moreover, we like patterns. Professor Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-prize-winning economist and the father of behavioral economics, described us as "pattern recognizing machines." He implies with his playful description that our brains like patterns, and we couldn't turn off this preference even if we wanted to. So, we usually don't. Hence, the stereotypes and jumping to conclusions we are fond of as a species. 

We see this pattern recognition in customer experiences, too. For example, you sometimes know by subtle cues whether a company will give you the hard sell. Or you can tell what's coming next based on the steps you experience. These are learned based on how you felt the last time you were in a hard sell situation. Many of us are uncomfortable in these situations, so we develop a sense for when we see signs that we might end up in one again—and a trusty escape route. 

However, memories in Customer Experiences manifest in all kinds of ways, including:

  • Remember what you like off a menu at a particular restaurant, which drives your decision-making the next time
  • Reading the prices at a retail store and thinking that things are more expensive than they used to be—a familiar one these days
  • Feeling a fondness or repulsion by a brand, as brands are just a collection of memories in a customer's mind
  • Thinking an experience was good or bad is based on comparing previous experiences from the same place or other places 
  • Having expectations about what will happen in an interaction with a company formed from previous interactions

As you can tell, memory is vital in customer strategy. So in many ways, managing your customer experience is managing customers' memories.

The Significance of How Memories Form

Understanding how customers' memories form is foundational to managing customer expectations, experiences, and behavior. So let's first explore how memories exist in our minds. 

Memories do not exist in isolation. Instead, our memories live in a network structure, meaning each memory is connected to many other memories. So it's helpful to think of memories branching out in connections. 

Memory is also classified into two types, short- and long-term memory. Sometimes people call short-term memory working memory. Think of it like the things you are working on now. Working memory is immediately available to you, just like the project on your desk.

However, once you have worked with the memory enough, you file it away. Picture a project file you store in a filing cabinet. The filing mechanism is long-term memory. 

Sometimes, you don't file the working memory; you pitch it in the memory wastebasket, like a discarded draft in a crumpled-up ball. Once you do that, it's often gone. It never makes it to long-term memory. 

For example, we are redecorating the house, and I need to buy some electrical sockets. When buying them, I used some aspects of the electrical sockets to compare. However, after buying them, I discarded those criteria, crumpling them into the wastebasket. Now, a few days later, I can't remember what I used to compare them. 

However, emotional experiences often automatically make it to the filing stage. It's as if the long-term memory says, "Clearly, that's something we want to hold on to." 

That said, some dumb things can also make it into long-term memory. For example, I can rattle off my telephone number from my childhood. I don't know any of my children's mobile numbers to save my life today, but that disconnected line will be there forever.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of memory. Long-term memory is crucial because it's our experiences. However, long-term memory is also not as immediately available to us. Short-term memory is helpful in the moment and easy to access and use, but not always available later if we need it

Next week, we will continue the memory subject in our second part of the Memory Mini-series. Over the whole series, we will cover the different types of memories, how we store them, why we forget things, and, perhaps most importantly, how all this memory stuff applies to customer experiences. So, please remember to come back next week

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