Ever since the first caveman and cavewoman argued over where they parked their wheel, humans have known that memory isn’t worth the neurons it’s imprinted on. Descartes famously turned our faulty powers of recall into a full-on philosophical crisis, wondering how we could be certain that everything we remembered about the past had not been implanted in our minds by an all-powerful demon bent on deceiving us.
As it happens, Descartes was right to be concerned. Two U.S. marketing professors recently set out to see if they could use advertising to create memories in subjects, Inception-style. The test was wildly successful. In the experiment set up by Pryali Rajagopal and Nicole Montgomery, two groups of people would read out a description of a fictional consumer product, such as popcorn. Each group got one of two cards. The first group would get a card that had a comprehensive description of the product, while the second group got a more terse description.
After the two groups had read about the popcorn, some filled out an irrelevant survey, while others got some popcorn. But when tested a few weeks later, it turned out that what mattered was not whether a subject had eaten popcorn, but whether they had got the card with the full description. Those who saw the full description without the taste test were just as likely to report that they’d eaten the popcorn as those who actually had. Even more interesting is that these false memories contribute to attitudes about the relative merits of the product, or what they call “the false experience effect.” When it comes to the power of the brand bullies, it seems that Descartes was way ahead of Naomi Klein.