How We Remember
Updated: May 6, 2020
The title literally called me out: 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. I’m a designer. I’m into Psychology. Do I know this stuff? Do I need to know it? Somebody thinks so.
Skimming through, I stopped at Chapter 21 about making information stick. The author, Susan M. Weinschenk, Ph.D., says we have to use information to make it memorable. She offers up two practical ways to do that:
Information sticks if we repeat it enough times, thereby changing the brain’s wiring and creating new circuits. ‘What fires together wires together,’ forming new connective patterns between neurons, and moving information from working memory into long-term memory.
So what? So what advertising executives say about the need to repeatedly expose an audience to an unfamiliar new message may be true. We tend to resist new ideas. But repetition creates a ‘memory trace’ in the consumer’s mind, generally increasing acceptance of the idea over time, and impacting purchasing behavior. There does appear to be a point of diminishing returns though, and a message that draws a negative response the first time may be increasingly disliked with repetition.
#2 MENTAL MODELS
If we know (or can guess at) what mental models our audience holds related to our message, we can suggest how our new information plugs into and enhances their existing mental map. To help them absorb and retain our message, we can help ‘frame’ or contextualize our specific piece of content to fit with what they already know or believe. Abstract concepts are best built upon an already established foundation of relevant, concrete information.
So what? We are more likely to pay attention to things that fit into our existing worldview and to resist information that contradicts our pre-conceived ‘scripts’ or ‘frames’ of how things are. There is 'cognitive dissonance' to work out. We might ignore or forget new information that doesn’t fit or hang well on our existing framework. Or we might see new conflicting data as an exception to the 'rule.' Or we might distort the data to make it fit.
When the new information can't be ignored or revised to fit, our existing mental models must be changed to accommodate it, or a new schema created. Even in the face of contradictory information, we tend to hold onto our existing models. Sometimes we would rather live with inconsistencies than give up a deeply-held belief or value.
Metaphor and story can help bypass this resistance by speaking to, not the analytical cognitive brain that creates and maintains these mental models, but to the emotional, visceral and subconscious parts of the brain that pre-date the neocortex by eons. But that’s another post…