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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