Memory’s Murky Mysteries

Why our memories are like clay, not like a snapshot, and what market researchers can do about it

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Texas governor Rick Perry briefly emerged as the leaning contender for the Republican nomination. He was soaring in the polls and headed into the first debate with all the momentum. And then this happened.

This was a core element of his domestic policy, something he had thought about, talked about, and rehearsed hundreds of times. And then on the biggest stage of his life, he choked.

If you were watching at the time you probably asked yourself, “How could someone be so stupid?

Well, we are all this stupid from time to time. We like to think of our memory as being like a snapshot — a pixel-by-pixel representation of what occurred in the past. However, in reality, our memory is more like wet clay that can be shaped and molded — and sometimes pieces drop off the table and get lost, never to be seen again.


There are three kinds of memory:

Procedural memory is memory for how to conduct a particular task. These memories tend to be quite stable. You know the old saying that you never forget how to ride a bike? There is a lot of truth to that.

Semantic memory is our memory for facts. This form of memory is highly variable, depending on how often a piece of information gets repeated and how relevant it is over time. You can remember quite easily the name of the President of the United States. You probably have a harder time remembering the name of the President of the United States in 1846, although you likely learned that in school at some point.

Episodic Memory is our memory for specific events that happened in our past. This form of memory is least stable of all. It also happens to be the form of memory that is of most relevance to market researchers.


Noted memory researcher Daniel Schacter authored a book entitled The Seven Sins of Memory. Four of those sins are particularly relevant to market researchers:

The sin of transience — how details of events smudge together over time.

The sin of bias — how our experiences today shape our memories of our experiences yesterday.

The sin of suggestibility — how other people can unconsciously influence us to remember things differently.

The sin of misattribution — how we can retroactively “see” things that weren’t there.

Fortunately, there are ways to navigate around these landmines. I will talk about the sins of memory in more detail and lay out strategies for how researchers can overcome them at the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA) Annual Conference, Thursday, January 19 from 9–10 A.M. at the JW Marriot Los Angeles L.A. Live.

James Forr is Head of Insights at Olson Zaltman

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