Part 5: Memorable Highlights From Our IIeX Panel

By David Paull

In the fifth and final article of our series examining flawed recall and memory bias I cover highlights from the live panel session I facilitated with our team of research and memory experts at the recent IIeX North America conference. We have a more comprehensive recap of the panel session on the Dialsmith blog for those interested, and will also share a link to the video of the full session—courtesy of IIeX—as soon as it’s available. Here are some memorable moments from our session:

I asked Elizabeth Merrick of Nest, resident corporate researcher on our panel, for some real-world evidence of how customers’ inability to accurately recall experiences has impacted her research.    

Merrick responded, “At a prior company, we were consistently seeing a 13 – 20 percent misattribution rate on surveys due in large part to recall problems. Resultantly, you get this chaos in your data and have to wonder what you can trust. If I’m making future decisions based on the data that’s coming in—future decisions that could determine the allocation of millions of dollars in marketing budget—then I need to feel confident that this is not misdirected information. All data is not necessarily good data, and I’d be extremely remiss, as someone who is helping build a business based on insights, to use information that I know has such a deep problem with it.”

I asked our academic researcher and memory manipulation expert, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, if there were lessons learned from her decades of memory research that could be helpful to those of us in the market research community.

Loftus responded, “For many decades, I have been deliberately distorting people’s memories. It’s surprisingly easy to expose people to leading questions, or to misinformation, or to erroneous versions by other witnesses, and find that this contaminates the memory of the individual you are studying. In my more recent research, we’ve shown just how far you can go. You can plant entirely false memories into the minds of people for things that didn’t happen and it affects peoples’ later thoughts, intentions, and behaviors. The takeaway here is just how extremely malleable and susceptible memory is to outside influences.”

Dr. Loftus’ response brought up an interesting and unexplored topic around the ethics of deliberately planting and/or manipulating memories and if it should be used as a marketing technique to impact consumer behavior. So, I asked Dr. Loftus to weigh in on the ethics issue.

Loftus responded, “I’ve thought about the ethics of (intentionally manipulating memory) quite a bit and there’s no easy answer. I mean we’ve planted false memories that when someone was a kid, they got sick eating a particular food—like a hardboiled egg or strawberry ice cream—and the result was that they no longer wanted to eat those foods as much. We planted a warm, fuzzy childhood memory about a healthy food—in this case, asparagus—then our people wanted to eat more asparagus. And so, we can actually affect people’s nutrition and the types of foods they prefer eating—all through planted memories. So, you can see the potential positive implications of that. But should we deliberately plant memories in the minds of people so they can live healthier or happier lives or should we be banning the use of these techniques? I think that’s a personal decision.”

Merrick added, “I think there’s a spectrum there: on one end, it’s scary to think about the manipulation that could happen. But on the other end, it just sounds a lot like advertising. You find this nugget of truth or this common feeling we all have, and leverage it. Going further down that path, I wonder if there are ethical applications of this for post-purchase experiences. When we think about the entire journey with our customers, are there moments later on where we could use these ‘memory tactics’ to actually create stronger brands? So, rather than just trying to mitigate memory bias in our research, can we actually use it to our advantage to offset issues with our brands? It’s an interesting thought.”

Next, I asked Andrew Jeavons, founder of Mass Cognition and former CEO of Survey Analytics, to offer up ways in which we can mitigate the impact of flawed recall and memory bias.

Jeavons responded, “It sounds very simple minded but it’s actually really important. You’ve got to think when you’re asking about semantic knowledge in a survey or if you’re asking about episodic memory and if you are asking about episodic memory, are you optimizing or making it easy for people to recall this information.”

Merrick added, “We’ve been talking about memory biases for our respondents, but we, as researchers, are also very prone to memory biases. I’m sure everybody in this room at some point has said, ‘Oh, well I remember this so let’s put this in.’ There’s a huge opportunity in qual research to apply an impartial tool or impartial technique that can mitigate (researcher) biases too. If we really want our data to be good, we need to have better text analytics. The data is available. The processes are still getting better. I would imagine in the next few years, it’s going to be absolutely required that anytime you do something that is qualitative in nature that the analysis is not totally reliant on humans. So, I would encourage everybody in this room to not only think of the biases of your respondents but also think of your own.”

And that’s a wrap from our IIeX panel session. For the next phase of our program, we’ll be exploring a study to analyze the differences between results gathered through recall-based research versus those gathered through in-the-moment research. So, stay tuned. You can track news and updates from our program, participate in discussions, and find links to resources on this topic by following us on Twitter or by visiting and bookmarking the program web page.

By David Paull, Founder & CEO, Dialsmith

This series of articles is part of a broader program, developed and sponsored by Dialsmith, centered on exposing the challenges around recall- and memory-bias in market research. You can continue to track news and updates from the program or participate in discussions by following on Twitter at @Dialsmith and #ExposingRecallMRx and by visiting the program web page at http://www.dialsmith.com/exposing-recall-mrx.

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