When asked the other day about a bakery near my home, I responded that I’d recently eaten its mouth-watering chocolate chip cookies. My wife corrected me, noting that the cookies I ate were actually oatmeal raisin.
Is this an early sign of impending dementia? Should I call my doctor?
Or is forgetting the details of a dessert a good thing, given that everyday life is filled with an enormous number of details, too many for a finite human brain to remember accurately?
I am a cognitive scientist and have been studying human perception and cognition for more than 30 years. My colleagues and I have been developing new theoretical and experimental ways to explore this kind of error.
Are these memory mistakes a bad thing, resulting from faulty mental processing?
We’re leaning toward the latter – that memory errors may actually indicate a way in which the human cognitive system is “optimal” or “rational.”
Are people rational?
For decades, cognitive scientists have thought about whether human cognition is strictly rational. Starting in the 1960s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted pioneering research on this topic. They concluded that people often use “quick and dirty” mental strategies, also known as heuristics.
For example, when asked whether the English language has more words starting with the letter “k” or with “k” as the third letter, most people say there are more words starting with “k.” Kahneman and Tversky argued that people reach this conclusion by quickly thinking of words that start with “k” and with “k” in the third position, and noticing that they can think of more words with that initial “k.” Kahneman and Tversky referred to this strategy as the “availability heuristic” – what comes most easily to mind influences your conclusion.
Although heuristics often yield good results, they sometimes do not. Therefore, Kahneman and Tversky argued that, no, human cognition is not optimal. Indeed, the English language has many more words with “k” in the third position than words starting with “k.”
Suboptimal or the best it can be?
In the 1980s, however, research started appearing in the scientific literature suggesting that human perception and cognition might often be optimal. For instance, several studies found that people combine information from multiple senses – such as vision and hearing, or vision and touch – in a manner that is statistically optimal, despite noise in the sensory signals.
Perhaps most important, research showed that at least some instances of seemingly suboptimal behavior are actually the opposite. For example, it was well known that people sometimes underestimate the speed of a moving object. So scientists hypothesized that human visual motion perception is suboptimal.
But more recent research showed that the statistically optimal sensory interpretation or percept is one that combines visual information about the speed of an object with general knowledge that most objects in the world tend to be stationary or slow moving. Moreover, this optimal interpretation underestimates the speed of an object when visual information is noisy or low quality.
Because the theoretically optimal interpretation and people’s actual interpretation make similar errors in similar circumstances, it may be that these errors are inevitable when visual information is imperfect, and that people are actually perceiving motion speeds as well as they can be perceived.
Scientists found related results when studying human cognition. People often make errors when remembering, reasoning, deciding, planning or acting, especially in situations when information is ambiguous or uncertain. As in the perceptual example on visual speed estimation, the statistically optimal strategy when performing cognitive tasks is to combine information from data, such as things one has observed or experienced, with general knowledge about how the world typically works.
Researchers found that the errors made by optimal strategies – inevitable errors due to ambiguity and uncertainty – resemble the errors people really make, suggesting that people may be performing cognitive tasks as well as they can be performed.
Evidence has been mounting that errors are inevitable when perceiving and reasoning with ambiguous inputs and uncertain information. If so, then errors are not necessarily indicators of faulty mental processing. In fact, people’s perceptual and cognitive systems may actually be working quite well.
Your brain, under constraints
There are often constraints on human mental behavior. Some constraints are internal: People have limited capacity for paying attention – you can’t attend to everything simultaneously. And people have limited memory capacity – you can’t remember everything in full detail. Other constraints are external, such as the need to decide and act in a timely manner. Given these constraints, it may be that people cannot always perform optimal perception or cognition.
But – and this is the key point – although your perception and cognition might not be as good as they could be if there were no constraints, they might be as good as they could be given the presence of these constraints.
Consider a problem whose solution requires you to think simultaneously about many factors. If, because of capacity limits on attention, you cannot think about all factors at once, then you will not be able to think of the optimal solution. But if you think about as many factors as you can hold in your mind at the same time, and if these are the most informative factors for the problem, then you’ll be able to think of a solution that is as good as possible given your limited attention.
The limits of memory
This approach, emphasizing “constrained optimality,” is sometimes known as the “resource-rational” approach. My colleagues and I have developed a resource-rational approach to human memory. Our framework thinks of memory as a type of communication channel.
When you place an item in memory, it’s as if you’re sending a message to your future self. However, this channel has limited capacity, and thus it cannot transmit all details of a message. Consequently, a message retrieved from memory at a later time may not be the same as the message placed into memory at the earlier time. That is why memory errors occur.
If your memory store cannot faithfully maintain all details of stored items because of its limited capacity, then it would be wise to make sure that whatever details it can maintain are the important ones. That is, memory should be the best it can be within limited circumstances.
Indeed, researchers have found that people tend to remember task-relevant details and to forget task-irrelevant details. In addition, people tend to remember the general gist of an item placed in memory, while forgetting its fine details. When this occurs, people tend to mentally “fill in” the missing details with the most frequent or commonplace properties. In a sense, the use of commonplace properties when details are missing is a type of heuristic – it is a quick-and-dirty strategy that will often work well but sometimes fail.
Why did I recall eating chocolate chip cookies when, in fact, I had eaten oatmeal raisin cookies?
Because I remembered the gist of my experience – eating cookies – but I forgot the fine details, and thus filled in these details with the most common properties, namely cookies with chocolate chips.
In other words, this error demonstrates that my memory is working as well as possible under its constraints. And that’s a good thing.
Funding: Robert Jacobs receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Source: The Conversation
As we have seen, our memories are not perfect. They fail in part due to our inadequate encoding and storage, and in part due to our inability to accurately retrieve stored information. But memory is also influenced by the setting in which it occurs, by the events that occur to us after we have experienced an event, and by the cognitive processes that we use to help us remember. Although our cognition allows us to attend to, rehearse, and organize information, cognition may also lead to distortions and errors in our judgments and our behaviours.
Why do we forget? Some memories simply fade with the passage of time; they decay as the structural changes learning produces in the brain simply go away. But most forgetting is due to interference; as we learn additional information, it displaces the earlier information. Because we store pieces of information in associative networks, we are more likely to retrieve a meaning concept when it’s connected by a larger number of links. As we integrate new concepts, a stimulus is no longer as effective to retrieve the old response. These interference effects help to explain why we have trouble remembering brand information. Since we tend to organize attribute information by brand, when we learn additional attribute information about the brand or about similar brands, this limits our ability to activate the older information (Meyers-Levy, 1989).
The Cost of Failing to be Memorable
Marketers obviously hope that consumers will not forget about their products. However, in a poll of more than 13,000 adults, more than half were unable to remember any specific ad they had seen, heard, or read in the past thirty days (Burke & Srull, 1988).
How many can you remember right now? Quick, make a list! Clearly, forgetting by consumers is a big headache for marketers.
Cognitive biases are errors in memory or judgment that are caused by the inappropriate use of cognitive processes. The study of cognitive biases is important both because it relates to the important psychological theme of accuracy versus inaccuracy in perception, and because being aware of the types of errors that we may make can help us avoid them and therefore improve our decision-making skills.
Identifying Cognitive Biases
Our perceptions about value and loss are formed by our experiences, culture, upbringing, and messages received through mass media. These are innate biases we learn over time, mostly unconsciously. These unconscious decisions distort our judgment and can lead to stereotyping and bad decision making.
There are numerous cognitive biases that impact our decisions: here are 10 to watch out for:
- Anchoring Bias – Over-relying on the first piece of information obtained and using this as a baseline for comparisons.
- Availability Bias – Making decisions based on immediate information or examples that come to mind.
- Bandwagon Effect – Making a decision if there are others that also hold that belief or opinion. People tend to divide themselves into groups, and then attribute positive attributes to their own group. (Similar to “group think” and “herd mentality”.)
- Choice-Supportive Bias – Once a decision is made, focusing on the benefits and ignoring or minimizing flaws.
- Confirmation Bias – Paying more attention to information that reinforces previously held beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary.
- False-Consensus Effect – Overestimating how much other people agree with their own beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and values. Leads people not only to incorrectly think that everyone else agrees with them, but it can also lead to overvaluing of opinions.
- Halo Effect – Tendency for an initial impression of a person to influence what we think of them overall. Assuming that because someone is good or bad at one thing they will be equally good or bad at another.
- Self-Serving Bias – Tendency for people tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. This plays a role in protecting your self-esteem.
- Hindsight Bias – Tendency to see events, even random ones, as more predictable than they are. (Similar to the the “I knew it all along” phenomenon.)
- Misinformation Effect – Tendency for memories to be heavily influenced by things that happened after the actual event itself. These memories may be incorrect or misremembered.
Perhaps one of the most relatable cognitive biases is the IKEA Effect, which is described as the disproportionately high value we place on items that we have had a hand in creating ourselves. This cognitive bias is more commonly expressed as a “a labour of love” showing our affinity for the blood, sweat, and tears that we put into building a bookshelf; sewing a quilt; assembly a large-scale LEGO project; or simply preparing a delicious dinner from a meal-delivery service. Not only do consumers value the end product more (than if they’d purchased one pre-assembled), they are even willing to pay more to put in the work!
Specifically, consumers exhibit greater willingness to pay for self-made products than for identical products that have been produced by someone else, even if the self-crafted product is of inferior quality (e.g., Franke et al. 2010; Norton et al. 2012). Since effort is considered costly, preferring self-made products over ready-made products incurs extra costs, which should intuitively lower the willingness to pay.
Remarkably, the higher willingness to pay as demonstrated by the literature suggests the opposite and points to an overvaluation of the self-made product. For example, in an experimental study, Norton et al. (2012) asked participants to assemble a standardized IKEA storage box or hedonistic items such as a Lego car or an origami model. Regardless of the product type, the participants exhibited greater willingness to pay compared with the willingness to pay of third-parties and also compared with their own willingness to pay for identical but pre-assembled products.
One potential error in memory involves mistakes in differentiating the sources of information.
Source monitoring refers to the ability to accurately identify the source of a memory. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of wondering whether you really experienced an event or only dreamed or imagined it. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Rassin, Merkelbach, and Spaan (2001) reported that up to 25 per cent of undergraduate students reported being confused about real versus dreamed events. Studies suggest that people who are fantasy-prone are more likely to experience source monitoring errors (Winograd, Peluso, & Glover, 1998), and such errors also occur more often for both children and the elderly than for adolescents and younger adults (Jacoby & Rhodes, 2006).
The Sleeper Effect
In other cases we may be sure that we remembered the information from real life but be uncertain about exactly where we heard it. Imagine for a moment that you have just read some gossip online. Probably you would have discounted the information because you know that its source is unreliable.
But what if later you were to remember the story but forgot the source of the information? If this happens, you might become convinced that the news story is true because you forget to discount it. The sleeper effect refers to attitude change that occurs over time when we forget the source of information (Pratkanis, Greenwald, Leippe, & Baumgardner, 1988).
In still other cases we may forget where we learned information and mistakenly assume that we created the memory ourselves. Canadian authors Wayson Choy, Sky Lee, and Paul Yee launched a $6 million copyright infringement lawsuit against the parent company of Penguin Group Canada, claiming that the novel Gold Mountain Blues contained “substantial elements” of certain works by the plaintiffs (“Authors Sue Gold Mountain…,” 2011).
The suit was filed against Pearson Canada Inc., author Ling Zhang, and the novel’s U.K.-based translator Nicky Harman. Zhang claimed that the book shared a few general plot similarities with the other works but that those similarities reflect common events and experiences in the Chinese immigrant community. She argued that the novel was “the result of years of research and several field trips to China and Western Canada,” and that she had not read the other works. Nothing was proven in court.
Finally, the musician George Harrison claimed that he was unaware that the melody of his song My Sweet Lord was almost identical to an earlier song by another composer. The judge in the copyright suit that followed ruled that Harrison did not intentionally commit the plagiarism. (Please use this knowledge to become extra vigilant about source attributions in your written work, not to try to excuse yourself if you are accused of plagiarism.)
The Sleeper Effect, Cognitive Bias, & MSG
I can remember back to some time in my youth when there was a public fear of a flavour-enhancing ingredient commonly used in Asian cooking. Monosodim glutamate (better known as “MSG”), was the target of widespread criticism and public outcry because someone somewhere claimed it caused adverse side effects, ranging from headaches to numbness.
Thinking back now I wonder where I first heard this?
Who was responsible for this claim and was the source reliable?
I was young and easily influenced by herd mentality (bandwagon effect) and never bothered to ask. I do remember, however, that every Asian restaurant I went to marketed themselves as being “MSG-free” even to the extent that they would advertise a large image of “MSG” in a circle with a line across it, like a no-smoking sign.
Today I’m intrigued to know how this all happened: how did consumers all over the world develop a negative and unfavourable attitude towards MSG, and presumably like me, have no idea the source or validity of the panic in the first place?
Where it all started
In 1968, MSG’s death knell rang in the form of a letter written to the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok, a Chinese-American doctor from Maryland. Kwok (1968) claimed that after eating at Chinese restaurants, he often came down with certain unpleasant symptoms, namely “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back” and “general weakness and palpitation.”(Geiling, 2013)
After Kwok’s letter was published, the New England Journal of Medicine received many more from readers who claimed to experience similar effects after eating Chinese food.
Debunking the MSG myth
Countless scientific and medical experiments were conducted in the two decades following Kwok’s 1968 claim—from the FDA to the United Nations—and extensive examinations completed by many governments (Australia, Britain, Japan) which concluded that MSG was safe to use and consume as a food additive (Geiling, 2013). The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) states the following on its website about MSG:
FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions (“Questions & Answers”…2018).
This leads me to wonder, what was really behind all this panic about MSG?
Confronting consumer bias
Ian Mosby, a food historian who has researched what became known as the “Chinese restaurant syndrome” examined the topic more closely in his research publication, “That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980”. Mosby (2009) argued that the Chinese restaurant syndrome was, “at its core, a product of racialized discourse that framed much of the scientific, medical and popular discussion surrounding the condition.”
For example, Mosby points out that while Asian restaurants in the western world had to advertise loudly “No MSG,” junk food and packaged good companies selling potato chips and cans of soup didn’t (Mosby, 2012). As it turns out, MSG is not unique to just Asian cuisine and is used in a host of other packaged and frozen products as well as freshly prepared non-Asian dishes.
Bias and prejudice towards Asian people and cuisine fueled an unnecessary marketing movement and the anti-MSG activism in many parts of the world, including in Canada were it is often believed that racism has no home. Mosby reminds us of why that isn’t the case:
The story of the ‘discovery’ and ‘spread’ of the Chinese restaurant syndrome – and its central idea that you were more likely to suffer an adverse reaction to MSG after eating Chinese food – therefore provides an instructive example of the ways in which ideas about supposedly ‘foreign’ food and food cultures can often bring to the surface a range of prejudices and assumptions grounded in ideas about race and ethnicity that, even in supposedly pluralistic and multicultural societies like Canada, continue to inform perceptions of the culinary ‘other’.
Schema & Confirmation Bias
Schemas help us remember information by organizing material into coherent representations. However, although schemas can improve our memories, they may also lead to cognitive biases. Using schemas may lead us to falsely remember things that never happened to us and to distort or misremember things that did. For one, schemas lead to confir
mation bias, which is the tendency to verify and confirm our existing memories rather than to challenge and disconfirm them. The confirmation bias occurs because once we have schemas, they influence how we seek out and interpret new information. The confirmation bias leads us to remember information that fits our schemas better than we remember information that disconfirms them (Stangor & McMillan, 1992), a process that makes our stereotypes very difficult to change. And we ask questions in ways that confirm our schemas (Trope & Thompson, 1997).
If we think that a person is an extrovert, we might ask her about ways that she likes to have fun, thereby making it more likely that we will confirm our beliefs. In short, once we begin to believe in something — for instance, a stereotype about a group of people — it becomes very difficult to later convince us that these beliefs are not true; the beliefs become self-confirming.
Darley & Gross (1983) demonstrated how schemas about social class could influence memory. In their research they gave participants a picture and some information about a Grade 4 girl named Hannah. To activate a schema about her social class, Hannah was pictured sitting in front of a nice suburban house for one-half of the participants and pictured in front of an impoverished house in an urban area for the other half.
Then the participants watched a video that showed Hannah taking an intelligence test. As the test went on, Hannah got some of the questions right and some of them wrong, but the number of correct and incorrect answers was the same in both conditions. Then the participants were asked to remember how many questions Hannah got right and wrong.
Demonstrating that stereotypes had influenced memory, the participants who thought that Hannah had come from an upper-class background remembered that she had gotten more correct answers than those who thought she was from a lower-class background.
Schemas & Pro-Environmental Consumers
How have consumers’ existing expectations about brands and retailers shaped their decision making? What actions can brands undertake to influence how consumers evaluate them? Consider the fashion and apparel industries and today’s highly-involved and conscientious consumer.
Many consumers today are becoming increasingly vocal about pro-environmental issues, making it imperative for retailers to be transparent about how their products are made (“Fashion with a conscience,” 2017). Bhaduri (2019) tells us that several apparel brands have started to not only undertake “pro-environmental” initiatives, but also communicate their effort through marketing communications because research shows that consumers often evaluate brands and their communications based on their existing expectations (schemas). Research also suggests that brand messages that are congruent (aligned) to consumers’ schemas will reinforce their existing expectations and be evaluated positively. A winning outcome for the brand!
Salience & Cognitive Accessibility
Another potential for bias in memory occurs because we are more likely to attend to, and thus make use of and remember, some information more than other information. For one, we tend to attend to and remember things that are highly salient, meaning that they attract our attention.
Does Salience Fool Us?
Things that are unique, colourful, bright, moving, and unexpected are more salient (McArthur & Post, 1977; Taylor & Fiske, 1978). In one relevant study, Loftus, Loftus, and Messo (1987) showed people images of a customer walking up to a bank teller and pulling out either a pistol or a chequebook. By tracking eye movements, the researchers determined that people were more likely to look at the gun than at the chequebook, and that this reduced their ability to accurately identify the criminal in a lineup that was given later.
The salience of the gun drew people’s attention away from the face of the criminal.
In a consumer behaviour context, we see that a consumer’s attention is attracted to and influenced by the most salient features they are faced with in the moment of buying (Bordalo, Gennaioli, & Shleifer, 2013). When deciding between two items—gym memberships, for example—the consumer might feel location is the most salient feature upon which they make their decision. Imagine if a consumer was considering purchasing a gym membership from one of two gyms.
Gym A is close enough to the consumer’s home that they could walk to it. The price, however, is 25% higher than Gym B, which is only a 10 minute drive away. Despite the price difference and the money that could be saved, our consumer selects the more expensive gym nearby because they are more attracted to “location”; in fact, their attraction to this feature is in-proportional to price, which means that location has more salience to our (soon to be fit) consumer.
The salience of the stimuli in our social worlds has a big influence on our judgment, and in some cases may lead us to behave in ways that might not benefit us. Imagine, for instance, that you wanted to buy a new mobile device for yourself. You checked Consumer Reports online and found that, although most of the leading devices differed on many dimensions, including price, battery life, weight, camera size, and so forth, one particular device was nevertheless rated significantly higher by owners than others. As a result, you decide that that is the one you are going to purchase the next day…
That night, however, you go to a party, and a friend shows you their brand new mobile device and after checking it out, you decide it’s perfect for your needs. You tell your friend that you were thinking of buying the other brand and they convince you not to, saying it didn’t download music correctly, the battery died right after the warranty expired, and so forth — and that they would never buy one. Would you still plan to buy it, or would you switch your plans?
If you think about this question logically, the information that you just got from your friend isn’t really all that important. You now know the opinion of one more person, but that can’t change the overall rating of the two devices very much. On the other hand, the information your friend gives you, and the chance to use their device, are highly salient.
The information is right there in front of you, in your hand, whereas the statistical information from Consumer Reports is only in the form of a table that you saw on your computer. The outcome in cases such as this is that people frequently ignore the less salient (more important) information, such as the likelihood that events occur across a large population (these statistics are known as base rates), in favour of the less important but nevertheless more salient information.
People also vary in the schemas that they find important to use when judging others and when thinking about themselves. Cognitive accessibility refers to the extent to which knowledge is activated in memory, and thus likely to be used in cognition and behaviour. For instance, you probably know a person who is a golf nut (or fanatic of another sport). All they can talk about is golf.
For them, we would say that golf is a highly accessible construct. Because they love golf, it is important to their self-concept, they set many of their goals in terms of the sport, and they tend to think about things and people in terms of it (“if they play golf, they must be a good person!”).
Other people have highly accessible schemas about environmental issues, eating healthy food, or drinking really good coffee. When schemas are highly accessible, we are likely to use them to make judgments of ourselves and others, and this overuse may inappropriately colour our judgments.
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