English - Naturvitenskap

The vulnerability of memory – a path to manipulation?

Author: Mila Apostolova


Memorization is a biological process that allows information to be stored and retrieved, by relying on networks of neurons in the brain. Since during certain situations our memory works emotionally, it can unfortunately leave an open door to external manipulation and influence over our decisions as well as actions. A very common, but still under-communicated example of this is marketing and its subtle strategies of accessing our memory to influence us over a long term period. One may therefore wonder if there is any way to protect our memory and prevent it from being influenced without our consent.

Why is memory emotional? 

An interesting phenomenon that you might have already realized, is that emotionally charged information is often better remembered or recognized than neutral information. This fact has been the subject of numerous neuroscientific research projects which have aimed to understand what structure of the brain is involved in the emotional aspect of our memory. Several of these studies have highlighted the importance of a brain region called the amygdala, and other limbic structures, in encoding, consolidating and rendering emotional information. The amygdala is involved in the recognition and evaluation of emotional aspects found in information we receive with our senses, and is a part of the limbic system. The limbic system is one of the oldest parts of the brain and is considered to be the foundation of emotions as well as functions such as memory, appetite and sense of smell. Another important structure of the limbic system is the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memorization.

The higher precision of emotional memories compared to neutral memories can be explained by studying attentional mechanisms such as attentional capture. Attentional capture refers to an involuntary focusing of attention that interrupts other processes, for example when you are focused on writing an essay and someone calls your name. It has been demonstrated that during the encoding phase, when information is stored as memory, the attentional capture is greater when the message contains emotional value. Thus, emotionally connoted information, like a sad event, is better memorized than neutral information.

This all seems to be harmless, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Emotional memory can be exploited, and in a world of consumerism memory is the perfect victim for marketing. 

How does marketing manipulate our memory?

Marketing is a set of actions or businesses that aim to promote and sell products or services, as well as possibly stimulate the consumer’s needs by using techniques such as advertisements. Over the years, a considerable amount of work has been put into the field of psychology of consumer behavior, highlighting the fact that we are pushed to buy certain products because of a biased perception of reality. This bias is caused by the enormous number of advertisements in our environment, which we usually don’t pay attention to. However, even if we are not consciously perceiving them, these advertisements can strongly affect our choices and behaviors. Research has shown that even ads that we don’t actually look at, or that we forget right away, still impact our preferences and, ultimately, our consuming behavior. Therefore, by invading our memory, the advertisements act in an unconscious way on our thoughts and actions towards selecting a product.

Indeed, one purpose of advertising is to interfere in the unconscious memory of consumers, for example with the help of visual information, such as bright colors or a slogan, and auditory information like jingles, that can quickly trigger an association. Of course, our memory does not allow us to consciously retrieve everything, meaning that just a few traces like color or shapes will usually be remembered. However, these traces are already sufficient to condition or bias an individual entering a store. Memory has a tight relationship with familiarity, a phenomenon that is responsible for making us turn our attention to a product we have previously seen, leading to a strong advantage of certain brands over others.

Although our memory will continue to be influenced and manipulated, we should be aware of that and resist.

Various techniques are used in marketing to make us memorize products better. For example, by presenting the brand logo along with the name of the product, the buyer will better memorize the link between the name of the brand and the product marketed. This phenomenon was especially studied in pop-up ads, which are forms of online advertisement. In these ads, the images would have emotional effects, and the written name would induce strong semantic effects especially in the first mental construction of the brand image. As a result, the consumers will turn their attention to specific items when entering a store because of the emotional value associated with the brand or product.

In recent years, the use of neuroimaging has even made it possible to observe in detail how the brain reacts to products according to their presentation in stores or advertisements. The combination of both neuroimaging and marketing gave birth to a new discipline: neuromarketing. The main goal of neuromarketing is to measure the activity of the brain of different people in order to complement other classic marketing methods and to better understand more how our brain reacts to different products or packaging. This new discipline can help us gain further knowledge on memory, and perhaps give us tips on how to protect it. However, neuromarketing receives ethical criticism regarding the fact that one can access unconscious processes and obtain information about individuals that they themselves would not be able to express. It is possible to view this matter as a sort of invasion of privacy, for example. Neuromarketing is a form of manipulation as well, and it has been targeted and criticized more than marketing per se. Nonetheless, it might be fairer to hold the whole marketing system accountable for this, instead of blaming only neuromarketing.

For the moment, how can we protect our memory from manipulation?

Unfortunately, there is still no magic trick to solve this. However, it is important to remember that, as consumers, understanding marketing mechanisms better can help us resist better. When you know the techniques of unconscious influences on the memory, you can try to attenuate the impacts: for example by taking more time to think about your purchasing choices, and rationally asking yourself why you felt the urge to buy one product rather than another. What was so attractive about it? Maybe it was really about the quality of the product, or maybe it was another factor, like the feeling of satisfaction caused by an advertisement. Although our memory will continue to be influenced and manipulated, we should be aware of that and resist. Let’s save some of our free will.

About the author:

Mila Apostolova, (*2001), cognitive neuroscience, UiO