How We Remember

Posted by on Jul 5, 2012 in Blog, Copywriting, Graphic Design, Marketing | 3 comments

How We Remember

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 a target audience to an unfamiliar new message may be true. People 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.


If we already have a working mental framework about a subject in our minds — a schema — it’s an easy container for uploading new, related information. ‘Head,’ for example, can serve as a schema for holding the details of eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hair, etc. This makes it easier for us to absorb and organize new information related to heads, to keep it in long-term memory, and to retrieve it later.

So what?  If we know, or can guess at, an existing schema our target audience holds related to our message, we can reference that schema, suggesting where in their mental models of the world they might attach or plug in this new information. To help others absorb and retain our message, we can provide them with general background information that helps ‘frame’ or contextualize our specific piece of information … or we can remind them of what they already know. Abstract concepts are best built upon an already established foundation of relevant, concrete  information.

We are more likely to notice (some would say attract) things that fit into our existing schemata (plural for schema), and tend to re-interpret information that contradicts our pre-conceived ‘scripts’ or ‘frames’ or ‘worldview’ of how things are. 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 cannot be ignored or revised to fit, existing schemata must be changed to accommodate it, or a new schema created. Schemata are resistant to change, even in the face of contradictory information. Many 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 a future post…

See also a 1-page review of  Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath

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3 responses to “How We Remember”

  1. Kay Leonard says:

    That’s great info! Back in “the day,” I took a Guerilla Marketing course. Something from that ties into this. To get someone to ACT UPON a new idea/product/whatever (dakine), someone needs to “see it” 7 times. However, it takes 3 times of exposure to the new idea/ad/product before they PERCEIVE/remember/”click” that they saw it once. So if you do the math, it takes 7 x 3 or 21 “impressions” before you can hope to get someone to act upon a new offer/whatever. That’s why you need to look at the big picture of your compaign and ensure that everything ties together as just another “impression” to stamp into your buyer’s mind … be consistent with your message AND repetitive. Thanks Linda!

    • linda says:

      Right on Kay. Thanks for fleshing out this concept. The more I read about brain science, the more I realize how much happens below consciousness.

  2. S. Morris Wise says:

    This is so true. I think relating new items to old is a particularly effective way to reduce the exposure needed for new concepts to gain acceptance. For instance, if a product you make contains chocolate, you can gain acceptance for you proudct by relating it a fine product aready on the market that consumers love. Thanks for sharing this great information Linda.

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