Don’t Be Fooled – Overcome Memory Limitations in Survey Response

Posted by: Collette Eccleston, PhD
  • April 1, 2015

dont_be_fooled_guy_455_290On April Fools’ Day, you expect some pranks from your friends. You even expect a few jokes from your favorite brands. But you don’t expect your mind to play tricks on you.

Unfortunately, our memories play tricks on us all the time. As researchers and insights professionals, we think that if we want to know something, we can simply survey the market. Ask the people and they will tell us. Undoubtedly, consumers can be a worthwhile source of information. But consumers are people, and like the rest of us, they have less than perfect memories.

Often, particularly in consumer experience research, we want to know about the details about consumer’s experience. When was the last time you visited the store? How long did you stay? Was the store clerk courteous? While it would be nice to think that we remember all the details of even the most mundane experience and interaction, it is simply not the case. Memory is imperfect and flawed.

Research in psychology has demonstrated that even for major events, such as the Challenger explosion and even September 11th, people’s memories are not as accurate as they believe, or we would like them to be. If it’s difficult for people to recall the specifics of who they were with, what they were doing, and the first person they called on the morning of September 11th, you can bet it will be difficult to remember their interaction with the store clerk at the supermarket two weeks or even two days ago.

Furthermore, memory is highly impressionable and easily influenced by linguistic cues. For example, participants in one research study were shown a film of a car accident. Despite having seen the same film, participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each reported that the cars were going at very different speeds than participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other.

When you ask a consumer about their experience with a particular retailer, rather than getting details of a specific experience, what you’re likely getting is a general stereotype of their experience at that store.

So what do you do if you want to know about specific experiences?
1. First, conduct the survey as soon as possible: within a day or two if possible.
2. Second, encourage people to tell a narrative. That is, before asking specific questions, which may influence recall, get the consumer to tell his or her story.

Getting people to tell their stories reduces the likelihood that recall of the experience is biased by the questions asked, and it allows consumers to focus on aspects of the experience that are salient and memorable to them. And, it’s engaging because it mirrors how we behave in real life. We tell our friends about the barista with the green hair and contagious laugh who has the almond milk at the ready when we get our morning coffee, not so much how she rated on being courteous and friendly.

So there are limitations to what consumers can tell us about the past. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But, we are better off if we recognize consumer’s limits and adjust our expectations and the questions we ask accordingly.

Next week? I’ll share some perspective on asking about the future. Until then, don’t be fooled.

 

References: 

Pezdek, K. (2003). Event memory and autobiographical memory for the events of September 11, 2001. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(9), 1033-1045.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.

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