Speak, Memory

“The future ain’t what it used to be.”  – Yogi Berra

Past present future?

Last week I spent a long taxi drive on my way to a meeting, and had time to plan an important email, so I spent the time productively, thinking carefully about the email’s message, specific wordings and phrasing I would use, and even the response I expected.  The experience of how I would feel writing the mail was clear and vivid.

Two days later I received a (very polite) phone call asking what had happened to the mail.  I replied that I was certain that I had sent it – it was very clear in my mind, and I could even recite the words that I had used.  When I checked my mail, I was surprised to find no record of sending the mail.  I had imagined the scenario so vividly, it had imprinted itself on my memory.

Looking back to look forward

In fact, our imagination of the future is very tied to our memories of the past, using the same brain areas and systems.  Recent work in neuroscience shows that the two are intimately connected, in that the brain is continuously generating predictions of the future, using similar experiences as the basis of it’s predictions.  I say similar advisedly, as it appears that our memory searches for similar experiences and not specific instances.

For example, when we see something in the external world, our brain does not ask “what is this?”, but rather asks “what is this like?” and the distinction is crucial.  Our brains try to link sensory input to an analogous representation in memory, and then seeks to retrieve information which is associated with the  memory.  In this way, our brain is completely proactive in seeking familiar patterns and information from incoming data (people, places, objects) and asking if there are other patterns which match the incoming data.  This happens in a very top down fashion, starting with the simplest and clearest elements before studying the detail (and then only if the detail is needed to understand the situation, as often the basic elements provide enough information).

Analogy is the key

The process is therefore one of seeking analogies, and then identifying associated memories which are used to predict likely outcomes.  Many philosophers have long argued that analogy is at the heart of our thinking, and evolutionary biology and neuroscience show that our brain is primarily a machine for ensuring our survival in a hostile world.  It does this by making predictions based on existing understanding, and this understanding is built through analogies (or metaphors).  Although some work in market research, especially in idea elicitation and semiotics, has focused on metaphor, the brain uses analogies in a much more general sense (not limited to semantics), including perceptual, conceptual, emotional and functional similarity.  Some recent brand and advertising research has also focused on the importance of associations in memory, and these are indeed important as they are used to identify relevant memories which can help predict outcomes.

These ideas would fit with many of the findings of social psychology and behavioural economics. Context makes a huge difference to individual behaviour, even at the fundamental level of priming, an important phenomenon for market researchers.  For example, if you prime rudeness to participants, then you will find that they interrupt you more frequently, or if you use specific words, or even languages, you can change the way that participants behave and the decisions that they make.  A recent article by Joel Rubinson, explores some of the issues with measuring brand awareness.  I believe that many of the concerns with such measures are, at least in part, due to the nature of the context of the question (ie how we frame and describe the category) and which associations are triggered by the context and wording.

Priming the pump

This means that the words we hear, the questions we are asked, and our environment, all contribute to creating a mindset, based on which particular associations are triggered and which are not.  That is, we create a broad set of predictions based on our understanding of the context, which we then use to guide our behaviour, including where we place our attention, and how we react to subsequent stimuli.

As researchers we have all been trained to think carefully about how we phrase questions and in what order we ask them, but this may not be enough.  We need to be aware of participants’ mindsets and the relevance of the questions and contexts we provide them.  In trying to understand reactions to products and services, is it more relevant to ask about the factors which are important to our client, or to identify the associations that participants consider relevant?

Finally, if we seek to understand future behaviour, we must provide a relevant context in order to get a sensible and accurate response.  Participants are often very bad at articulating reactions to new ideas and products, but this is understandable if they are not able to find relevant memories to make such predictions.

To understand both past and future behaviour, understand the mindset and the analogies and associations which are used to guide behaviour, and ask participants to mentally simulate the experience you seek to understand.

And next time I think I’ve written an email, I’ll check my memory of where I wrote it.


The proactive brain: memory for predictions by Moshe Bar (2009) in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language by Mark Turner (1998)

Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter (2010)

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