Ghost of Christmas past: Andrew Lewis on why memories matter more than experiences

Probably, like most men of a certain age (old but somehow still in a state of arrested development), I can’t help but get excited by the trailers circulating for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I don’t even want to, because I really don’t want to be disappointed, but I have no control over it. The sounds and images bring with them a flood of emotions directly from the depths of my brain, throwing me right back into my childhood like it was yesterday.

Essentially, the moviemakers have hijacked my mind through the power of my memories and I have no doubt whatsoever they will be hijacking my wallet come Christmas as well.

I am of course not alone in this powerless state. The enormous body of work conducted across fields such as behavioural economics and neuroscience speaks to the power of memory in guiding how we behave and how we make decisions. Perhaps most notably, Daniel Kahneman, founding father of behavioural economics, encourages us to view ourselves as having two ‘selves’ – the experiencing self, who understands the current moment, and the remembering self, who keeps tally on how things are going overall and tells us the story of our lives. 

The fascinating bit regarding his work on ‘memory vs experience’ is that the remembering self is essentially in charge. It is our memory of things that dictates how we judge a past event, how we make a decision right now and how we determine the likely outcome of a future event. 

Ultimately, what all this means is that it’s irrelevant what our experience of a moment is like as long as our memory
of it is good. 

Now, for anyone working in an industry such as marketing or advertising, with the clear aim of convincing people to behave in a certain way, this should be a golden insight. Build good memories, win the game. But the truth is that this idea has very little currency. Indeed, now more than ever, we are obsessed with the experiencing side over the remembering side. We focus on the minutiae of how we deliver services or brand experiences, identifying and removing pain points in our processes. We sit with people as they experience us, focusing on the now.

But what we often fail to understand is which moments in our brand experiences and interactions go on to become memories—or indeed how this process happens. We ignore the fact that most of the 600 million ‘moments’ that will make up our lives are going to end up on the cutting room floor of our mind. We treat all aspects of experience as equals, rather than prioritising those with the power to live on and dictate our future behaviour.

Which leads us to the big point really: if memory is so important in driving our behaviour, how do some moments go on to become memories while others are lost?

This is a complex space, but what is known from experimentation and deduction, is that change, significant moments and endings are the bits people tend to encode into memory. An overseas trip, for example, is sure to become memory. But if the second week of a vacation is no different from the first, the memory is unlikely to be added to by that extra time. A bad experience at the end of a service is definitely going to impact a memory, but one in the middle might not.

What we also know is that memory is much more likely to be automatically created when a moment of experience has meaning to us, where it is personally relevant. For example, we recently conducted a service design project for a client around a testing and licensing process. What was fascinating in this is that for all the pain points and key moments that could exist in this space, one of the most critical from a memory perspective was around the moment where the person’s photo was taken for their licence. As it stood, it was just clicked off as part of administrative process, never shown to the individual and treated with very little importance. But for people going through the process it was one of two critical elements that they reflected on when judging their experience. It was one of the few moments that was going to live on to form part of the story of their lives. The handling of this moment meant the difference between a brand experience that was judged as poor and one that could have been judged as fantastic.

Our lives are complex and to deal with this we need to ease the burden we face making decisions every day. This is what memory helps with. It gives us cues to guide our behaviour, based on what has happened before. If we as marketers want to reinforce or change the behaviours of people, it is memory we must look to for assistance in this task. We need to shake off our prevailing insistence that people act with rationality and work with the modes and rules that truly drive our actions.

We need to create amazing memories, not amazing experiences.  

  • This story was originally published in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing.    
  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of TRA. [email protected]

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