Focused Attention Makes Stronger Memories

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by: Roger Dooley

Want people to remember your message? Get their undivided attention first. Texas A & M neuroscience prof Dr. Bill Klemm (aka the “Memory Medic” writes that multitaskers remember less.

In essence, one has only so much “working memory” available to store incoming information. An experiment with human subjects showed that their ability to recall information they were supposed to remember was reduced when they were presented with distracting information at the same time as they were “remembering” the other data. More complex data (higher working memory load) was more affected by the distractions than less complex data.

Put in computer terms, it’s rather like having a poorly designed computer with small amount of working memory – as you run new applications, their data starts to displace what you were working on before. The more data your original application was storing, the higher the probability that the new apps will cause at least partial data loss. Fortunately, few computers work like this.

In some ways, this conclusion is fairly intuitive. If you are trying to remember something complicated, clearly it will be easier if you aren’t being distracted. Nevertheless, marketers ignore this simple fact all the time. How often do we see a television commercial with a website address or a toll-free number displayed on the screen while the audio track is yelling about low sale prices in effect through a particular date? Forcing the viewer to process the information about prices and trying to determine how many days are left in the sale is precisely the kind of task likely to prevent an eleven digit number from being remembered correctly. So, if you want customers to remember something, be sure that all parts of your message are working together and, to the extent possible, increase attention and reduce distraction.

The other important fact for marketers is that data that requires a lower working memory load to retain is more easily retained even when distractions exist. Thus, if your toll-free number is 1-800-123-4567 (or 1-800-FLOWERS), it will be remembered more easily in a distracting environment than 1-866-849-7136 (for example). Again, this seems obvious – businesses have sought out easy-to-recall numbers since telephone lines were first assigned numbers. Obvious indeed, but the study shows that there is a neuroscientific basis for ease of recall, and that an easy phone number or web address is particularly important if the information will be presented in a distracting environment and the user will need to remember it long enough to write it down (e.g., a television or radio ad).

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