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Remember When? New Study Shows That Memory Can Be Affected By Peer Pressure

A really fascinating study done at the Weizmann  Institute of Science in Israel, in collaboration with University College London in the UK, has interesting — and mostly scary — implications for advertising, marketing and society at large.

The question researchers were studying is whether social pressure can create false memories.  This is a different question than whether people will change their answers to conform to the group — we already knew that to be true. The assumption, though, has been that people are willing to lie to fit in or to not make waves… that, in effect, people knowingly falsify their beliefs to conform to social demands.

This study took an interesting approach:

How easy is it to falsify memory? New research at the Weizmann Institute shows that a bit of social pressure may be all that is needed. The study, which appears Friday in Science, reveals a unique pattern of brain activity when false memories are formed – one that hints at a surprising connection between our social selves and memory.

The experiment, conducted by Prof. Yadin Dudai and research student Micah Edelson of the Institute’s Neurobiology Department, with Prof. Raymond Dolan and Dr. Tali Sharot of University College London, took place in four stages. In the first, volunteers watched a documentary film in small groups. Three days later, they returned to the lab individually to take a memory test, answering questions about the film. They were also asked how confident they were in their answers.

They were later invited back to the lab to retake the test while being scanned in a functional MRI (fMRI) that revealed their brain activity. This time, the subjects were also given a “lifeline”: the supposed answers of the others in their film viewing group (along with social-media-style photos). Planted among these were false answers to questions the volunteers had previously answered correctly and confidently. The participants conformed to the group on these “planted” responses, giving incorrect answers nearly 70% of the time.

But were they simply conforming to perceived social demands, or had their memory of the film actually undergone a change? To find out, the researchers invited the subjects back to the lab to take the memory test once again, telling them that the answers they had previously been fed were not those of their fellow film watchers, but random computer generations. Some of the responses reverted back to the original, correct ones, but close to half remained erroneous, implying that the subjects were relying on false memories implanted in the earlier session.

An analysis of the fMRI data showed differences in brain activity between the persistent false memories and the temporary errors of social compliance. The most outstanding feature of the false memories was a strong co-activation and connectivity between two brain areas: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is known to play a role in long-term memory formation, while the amygdala, sometimes known as the emotion center of the brain, plays a role in social interaction. The scientists think that the amygdala may act as a gateway connecting the social and memory processing parts of our brain; its “stamp” may be needed for some types of memories, giving them approval to be uploaded to the memory banks. Thus social reinforcement could act on the amygdala to persuade our brains to replace a strong memory with a false one.

The study reminds us of a piece we did entitled, Altered States: How Price/Branding Affect Pleasure Centers. In that piece, we reviewed a study which found that people experienced greater pleasure when drinking wine they thought to be more expensive rather than a wine they thought was cheap. That study showed not merely that people claimed they enjoyed these wines more — that could just be snobbism. The study found an increase in …blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.”

In other words, people didn’t just say they enjoyed the pricey wine more, they actually did, even though the wine was, actually, the same.

In this new Weitzman study, it finds not only will people conform to peer perception, their perceptions — their memories  themselves — will alter in the face of peer perception. So people who went to Disney World, not only will feel pressure to say it was fun – even if it wasn’t — they may actually come to believe it was fun, if this is the perception of their peers.

The implications for marketing are breathtaking. For example, the marketing campaign that Disney had run, where it paid athletes to declare that “I’m going to Disneyland” or “I’m going to Disney World,” might have been enormously effective by creating a general societal expectation that people will enjoy Disney theme parks. In fact, what the study is saying is that people who went to Disney and did not enjoy it may find that their memories of the experience actually change to positive to conform with peer expectations.

Obviously much more research is required. There are loads of variables that we don’t know much about — for example, would the results be different if the peer group was noticeably different –say by race, religion or economic status? How close a peer group is required? For example, would a national political poll indicating that a President had been a very successful President or a failure as a President, change the recollection of those old enough to have been politically aware at that time?

This study could point to reasons why consumers might report that local or organic is more flavorful, if that is the consensus, even if their experience doesn’t support it. One interesting point for further research is the degree to which the same effect on memories can be generated by media reports. In other words, the implications of this study are that if they gave everyone some locally grown broccoli and some California-grown broccoli and if, for argument’s sake, everyone agreed the California broccoli tasted as good or better than the locally grown, that merely telling everyone that all the respondents thought the locally grown was best, would change people’s memories.

Would reading an article that said chefs all agree that the locally grown product tastes better have the same effect? Would an article that said a poll of people all agree that locally grown tastes better have the same effect?

Can marketers use social media to create this memory effect?

While we sit here and think of ways to use this insight to effectively market, one has to be a little horrified at the prospects for democracy. Though we suppose one could find value in the fact that this effect could reinforce what Lincoln referred to as the “mystic chords of memory” that serve to unite a people, it seems that democracy depends on free-thinking people. If memory itself can be altered, we can see how susceptible people may be when confronted with popular, but dangerous, ideologies. One thinks of the crowds cheering the Nazis and one wonders to what degree the rallies themselves shaped people’s understanding of reality.

It sends a shiver down one’s spine.

Here is a video explaining the study:

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