False Memories: Was that Bugs Bunny or Just My Imagination?

First published September 11, 2008 inn Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’ve talked about how powerful our mental brand beliefs can be, even to the point of altering the physical taste of Coke. But where do these brand beliefs come from? How do they get embedded in the first place?

A Place for Every Memory, and Every Memory in its Place

Some of the most interesting studies that have been done recently have been done in the area of false memories. It appears that we have different memory “modules,” optimized for certain kinds of memory. We have declarative memory, where we store facts. We can call these memories back under conscious will and discuss them. Then we have implicit memory, or procedural memory, that helps us with our day-to-day tasks without conscious intervention. Remembering how to tie your shoes or which keys to hit on a keyboard are procedural memories

Declarative memory is further divided into semantic and episodic memory. In theory, semantic memory is where we store meaning, understandings and concept-based knowledge. It’s our database of tags and relationships that help us make sense of the real world. Episodic memory is our storehouse of personal experiences. But the division between the two is not always so clear or water-tight.

The Making of a Brand Memory

Let’s look at our building of a brand belief. We have personal experiences with a brand, either good or bad, that should be stored in episodic memory. Then we have our understandings of the brand, based on information provided, that should build a representation of that brand in semantic memory. This is where advertising’s influence should be stored.

But the divisions are not perfect. Some things slip from one bucket to the other. Many of our inherent evolutionary mechanisms were not built to handle some of the complexities of modern life. For instance, the emotional onslaught of modern advertising might slip over from semantic to episodic memory. There will also be impacts that reside at the implicit rather than the explicit level. Memory is not a neatly divided storage container. Rather, it’s like grabbing a bunch of ingredients out of various cupboards and throwing them together into a soup pot. It can be difficult knowing what came from where when it’s all mixed together.

This is what happens with false memories. Often, they’re external stories or information that we internalize, creating an imaginary happening that we mistakenly believe is an episode from our lives. Advertising has the power to plant images in our mind that get mixed up with our personal experiences, becoming part of our brand belief. These memories are all the more powerful because we swear they actually happened to us.

That Wascally Wabbit!

University of Washington researcher Elizabeth Loftus and her research partner Jacquie Pickrell have done hundreds of studies on the creation of false memories. In one, under the guise of evaluating a bogus advertising campaign, they showed participants a picture of Bugs Bunny in front of Disneyland, and then had them do other tasks. Later in the study, the participants were asked to remember a trip to Disneyland. Thirty percent of them remembered shaking Bugs Bunny’s hand when they visited the Magic Kingdom, which would be a neat trick, considering that Bugs is a Warner’s character and would not be welcome on Disney turf.

We all tend to elaborate on our personal experiences to make them more interesting. We “sharpen” our stories, downplaying the trivial and embellishing (and sometimes completely fabricating) the key points to impress others. When we do this, we will draw from any sources handy, including things we’ve seen or heard in the past that we’ve never personally experienced. To go back to last week’s Coke example, our fond memories of Coke might just as likely come from a Madison Avenue copywriter as from our own childhood. We idealize and color in the details so our conversations can be more interesting. It goes back to the human need to curry social favor by gossiping. When you have this natural human tendency fueled by billions of dollars of advertising, it’s often difficult to know where our lives end and our fantasies take over.

This mix of personal experience and implanted images explains part of where our brand beliefs come from. Next week, I’ll look at the power of word of mouth and the opinions of others.

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