How Reconstructive Memory Affects Consumer Outlook

Today shapes yesterday

There are often times while gathering insights that it is important to reach out to consumers directly to learn their actual thoughts and provide answers in their own words. It helps us learn about their experiences, behaviors, expectations, and perceptions – all of which can have a profound effect on the way we approach the marketplace. Sometimes these consumers will be in a hurry and not end up giving us the best quality data. Sometimes, though, even with the best intentions and the most careful thought, their answers will not be factual. Why is this?

Reconstructive memories are not a mental form of neural cold storageThe easiest answer is that people are human, and naturally prone to making mistakes, but there is actually a more precise and helpful answer. Since the 1980s, there has been a significant amount of research on the nature of human memory that reveals insight that directs us as market researchers and practitioners. 

For many kinds of memory, especially in the memory of events (episodic memory), our remembrance is actively constructed from raw materials as we try to remember, not pulled directly from some mental form of neural cold storage.1 This effect can sometimes render our accounts to be inaccurate.

When We’re Missing a Brick

Often when we’re trying to remember something, and our mind begins its reconstruction process, we end up missing an element of the story – a brick in the building of memory. This doesn’t mean that we’re ‘not playing with a full deck’, it just means that some items just fade beyond our ability to recall. So what does the brain do?  It seems to want to fill in the gaps in the best manner it can in order to be consistent with current beliefs and with the other facts that could be recalled.2 For example, in one experiment, children were read a story and then asked to recall the story back to the researcher. They found that the children tended to alter the story to be more logical in its flow than the original story they were told.3

Rebuilding our memory can never be comprehensively completeWe see this again in the work of Tuckey and Brewer (2003).4 In their experiment, they exposed subjects to details of a robbery, and then did interviews 12 weeks later to see what they remembered. Information that was consistent with their typical view of how robberies are performed remained, but information that was inconsistent with their preconceived views of robberies faded much more quickly, unless it was just weird enough to stick out. We are not able to differentiate between true fact and our blurred memory fragments.

Is it possible that a qualitative subject could step you through a story of a personal experience with passion, confidence, and good intent, and that it could still be disconnected from historical fact or even what point of view they were experiencing the day before?  It is.

Seeing the past through glasses

We often see the past through "glasses"One researcher in the field of memory describes an experience of talking to a mother who she knew from firsthand knowledge was a prodigious smoker years ago, but had also quit smoking some time ago. When asking about her previous smoking habit, the subject made it clear that she had never smoked, because she loves her children, and knows that that would have harmed them. 

What in the world is going on here?  In a way related to our proclivity to fill in gaps using elements consistent with our beliefs and the facts we do remember, it seems that we also reconstruct memories based on our current worldview, even if that view was different when the memories were made.  As Forr and Dove (2016) note, “today shapes yesterday”.5 What is true about history seems to be true in psychology as well.

Putting it together

As consumer researchers, we often assume our clients are providing factual information, unless they tell us otherwise. However, in truth, it seems that their memories act closer to a Wikipedia page than a hard drive.6 The content we are trying to reach is modified and updated, both by them, and by others interacting with them – including the researcher seeking to understand.7

  1. This idea began in the research of Bartlett in the UK back in the 1930s already.  (Bartlett FC. Remembering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 1932).  Although not generally accepted at the time, the latest research firmly supports his prophetic conclusions. 
  2. Nalbantian, edited by Suzanne; Matthews,, Paul M., McClelland, James L. (2010). The memory process : neuroscientific and humanistic perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
  4. Tuckey, Michelle Rae, and Neil Brewer. "How Schemas Affect Eyewitness Memory Over Repeated Retrieval Attempts." Applied Cognitive Psychology 17.7 (2003): 785-800. Biological Sciences. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
  5. Forr, J. & Dove, D. Our malleable memories. Quirks Marketing Research Review, July 2016.
  7. ibid
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