Sto­ries Affect Memory

We like to think our mem­o­ries are both accu­rate and unchang­ing, but the truth is they’re far from either. Research by Eliz­a­beth Lof­tus has shown mem­o­ries to be extra­or­di­nary mal­leable and capa­ble of being fal­si­fied. And pio­neer­ing research in social psy­chol­ogy has shown the mind-bending power of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance to alter our mem­o­ries.

So what does this have to do with adver­tis­ing and small business?

The Fes­tinger and Carl­smith Experiment

First, let’s review the research in cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Here’s a quick and dirty write-up of the orig­i­nal exper­i­ments con­ducted by Fes­tinger and Carlsmith:

  1. At the begin­ning of the exper­i­ment, stu­dent vol­un­teers were asked to per­form a sim­ple and bor­ing task.
  2. Then, before the sub­jects left the exper­i­ment, the exper­i­menter asked if the sub­ject would be will­ing to do a small favor for the exper­i­menter, specif­i­cally ask­ing if they would tell the next sub­ject in line that the exper­i­ment was fun and enjoyable.
  3. Sub­jects who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20. Sub­jects in both groups typ­i­cally agreed to tell the next sub­ject that the exper­i­ment was interesting.
  4. But when exper­i­menters fol­lowed up with the sub­jects, the highly paid sub­jects con­fessed that the exper­i­ment was actu­ally bor­ing, while the lower-paid sub­jects were more likely to say that the exper­i­ment was “not bad” or that it was “interesting.”

So why the dif­fer­ence in opin­ions between the lower-paid and highly-paid volunteers?

Cog­ni­tive Dis­so­nance and Cialdini’s Influ­ence

Psy­chol­o­gists call it Cog­ni­tive Dis­so­nance, but if you’re a fan of Cial­dini’s book, Influ­ence, you prob­a­bly know it as an exam­ple of Com­mit­ment and Con­sis­tency. Either way, social sci­en­tists have deter­mined that we accept inner respon­si­bil­ity for a behav­ior when we think we have cho­sen it in the absence of strong out­side pressure.

So for the Fes­tinger and Carl­smith exper­i­ment, a large reward (like a $20 pay­ment in 1950s money) counts as strong out­side pres­sure, while a $1 pay­ment does not. That’s why the lower-paid vol­un­teers (and not the higher-paid ones) changed their judge­ment to reflect the “sto­ries” they told the other “vol­un­teers” — the story that the exper­i­ment was fun and enjoyable!

OK. Now how would this apply to you and your business?

Busi­ness Applications

Despite what you may be think­ing, the appli­ca­tions do NOT involve some Machi­avel­lian plan to implant false mem­o­ries or employ psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure on your prospects/customers through cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. And for the record, I truly do NOT rec­om­mend such schemes.

What I do wish to empha­size, how­ever, is this fairly straight­for­ward bot­tom line:

*Peo­ple Remem­ber What Gets Rein­forced Through Re-Presentation*

So the great results you get for peo­ple?  You might want to ensure that expe­ri­ence gets rein­forced, right?

And the best thing that peo­ple remem­ber from your work?  You might want to rein­force that, too, right?

And the time you jumped through some hoops to get them some­thing extra or extra-fast?  Ditto.

So how do you make sure these things get Rein­forced?  Through Re-presentation.  And what the hell does that mean?

Under­stand­ing and Using Re-Presentation

At it’s sim­plest, rep­re­sen­ta­tion is noth­ing more than a recount­ing of events through nar­ra­tive.  When you tell me what hap­pened, you are re-presenting the expe­ri­ence and also solid­i­fy­ing the mem­o­ries of that expe­ri­ence — but only for those mem­o­ries that get included in the story.  What gets recounted in the nar­ra­tive gets rein­forced, and those aspects left out of the nar­ra­tive get dimin­ished from memory.

In more elab­o­rate form, a re-presentation can involve mak­ing abstract ben­e­fits tan­gi­ble. Or pro­vid­ing a sym­bolic marker/event for an accom­plish­ment earned over time.

When weight loss ser­vices give you a bag of sand that weighs as much as the fat you lost, they’re rein­forc­ing the ben­e­fit through a dra­matic re-presentation of your weight loss. Same thing with the before and after snapshots.

When a mar­tial arts dojo gives your kiddo a new belt through test­ing, they are help­ing to com­mem­o­rate progress with a sym­bolic marker/event.  Same thing with break­ing boards.  What’s more likely to stick out when you tell some­one about your expe­ri­ence at the dojo: all the times you sat watch­ing your kids work through forms, or the moment you saw one of them break a stack of pine boards with their bare hands?

So what’s the best method for ensur­ing your clients most favor­able mem­o­ries get reinforced?

Use sym­bolic and tan­gi­ble mark­ers com­bined with nar­ra­tive re-presentations to really ensure those pos­i­tives get cemented in mem­ory.  Don’t just hand the suc­cess­ful weight loss client a bag of sand, tell their story, and then get their emo­tional response and tes­ti­mo­nial on video tape. Your retelling of the story, plus the dra­matic re-presentation of their accom­plish­ment, plus their own recount­ing of their suc­cess and hap­pi­ness at the event will ensure they never for­get the way they feel about that accomplishment.

So what sym­bolic mark­ers and tan­gi­ble, dra­matic re-presentations are you using?  What kind of nar­ra­tive re-presentations?

Don’t leave pos­i­tive impres­sions of ben­e­fits to chance.  Rein­force them through re-presentation.


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