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False Memories…. October 1, 2012

Posted by Natasha French in Advertising, eye tracking, Market Research, Shopper Research, Technology.

Tim Holmes, Technical Director at our sister company Acuity Intelligence, is an avid blogger and he’s inspired me. He’s put my lack of blogging to shame so without further ado, I’m going to write my first (of many) blogs – beginning with an entry prompted by forensic psychologist Scott Fraser and a TED talk he recently gave that considers ‘Why Eye Witnesses Get It Wrong’.

Although centred on a criminal case, this talk illustrates from a different perspective why using memory recall alone can show itself to be an unreliable way of gaining evidence. It also demonstrates why it’s so important that behavioural measures and analysis techniques are used to help determine the veracity of a particular memory.

Fraser attributes false memory as ‘the reason why eye witnesses get it wrong’. He explains that we can’t cope with all the sensory input so we filter it based on what we think is important at the time. This is what attention is! So when something becomes important after the fact, it isn’t necessarily in our memory at all.

A great example of this from eye-witness world is something called ‘weapon focus’ which means that if there’s a gun present, the witness tends to focus all their attention on the gun (the thing that they THINK is a threat to them) rather than the person holding the gun (the thing that is ACTUALLY a threat to them)so in the case of Fraser’s case study, the witness only has a partial story, and with no requirement for any motivation processing, the brain then is then filled with information that wasn’t actually stored in the first instance. On reflection, I can think of many instances where I’m sure something has happened, only to be told by my husband, ‘’that’s not the case’’ (I’m SURE I told him I was going to buy that new pair of shoes….!)

So, back to Fraser’s point about false memory, if a subject is recalling an experience that they believe to be a truthful statement of events, it could still be inaccurate and misleading. In a commercial context, there’s nothing to suggest that this situation would be different if a subject were asked to recall a shopping experience and recall ‘why’ their attention was drawn to a particular pack or after being asked to ‘think about the last time they bought an item’. This was illustrated by a classic article in Psychological Review ‘Telling More Than We Know; Verbal Reports on Mental Processes’ by Richard E.Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson at the University of Michigan. In this paper, cognitive psychologists Mandler, Miller and Neisser propose that ‘we have no direct access to order mental processes such as those involved in evaluation, judgement, problem solving and the initiation of behaviour’.

Frasers talk doesn’t surprise me. It’s been suggested that 95% of all decisions we make are subconscious with Gerald Zaltman of Harvard Business School and other psychologists supporting this idea and it makes sense that if most of our behaviour is subconscious and the brain tries to fill in any gaps with what it thinks is most likely based on experience. Eye tracking and physiological measures give you specific metrics which are derived from that subconscious decision making processes in addition to a consciously expressed opinion or pieced together memory. In other words, together with the consumers self-report, they give you a much more complete picture.

On a closing note, irony would have it that during Fraser’s talk there was inaccuracy in one of Fraser’s comments about the Twin Towers, clearly illustrating a faulty example testifying a good theory.

A talk on false memory with a false memory is somewhat ironic but does prove a point!


1. Robertino Pereira - October 5, 2012

Love it! Just started working on some materials for my workshops on eyetracking and neuromarketing. Have some part about false memories, change blindness, selective attention. The whole problem about the false memories and visual perception is that people are like 100% sure that they remember it right! Even if you explain it to them and even if you provoke false memories (DRM effect), they stay 100% sure. The same with changes in the visual field. “I am absolutely sure that I would see a Gorilla if there was one in the Video!”…
I am sure you know already the most of it (as I did as well), but a nice website is http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com

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