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Can an interactive web site produce false memories?
Possibly so, according to a fascinating paper to be published this month in the Journal of Consumer Research by Ann Schlosser, a business professor at the University of Washington. Schlosser performed an intriguing experiment: She took two groups of people and had them check out two different web sites devoted to the same digital camera. One site included static pictures; the other was interactive, allowing users to play around with a virtual version of the product.
Later, she tested them on their ability to recall details about the camera. She intentionally included details that were false, but sufficiently plausible that they might have been true. The result? The people who viewed the interactive demo of the camera were much more likely than the folks who’d only viewed static images to “remember” the false details as being present. Or another way of putting it: The interactive demo was more likely to produce false memories of the product — potential buyers who thought the camera could do things it can’t.
Why? Schlosser theorizees that it’s partly because interactivity encourages more “certainty” in our memories, and thus increases the likelihood that we’ll believe suggestively false details to be true. And, as she concludes:
These findings suggest that marketing managers should test their campaigns for both true and false memories. Although it may seem advantageous for consumers to believe that a product has features that it actually does not have (e.g., by increasing store visits and purchases), it may ultimately lead to customer dissatisfaction. Because false memories reflect source-monitoring errors—or believing that absent attributes were actually presented in the marketing campaign—consumers who discover that the product does not have these attributes will likely feel misled by the company.
One interesting thing Schlosser points out is that market-research folks almost never study the false-memory effects of advertising. Sure, they test to see whether consumers who’ve looked at promotional material can recall true information about a product. But they rarely check to see whether the consumers also remember false information. An interesting — if telling — elision, eh?
This also makes me wonder about whether other virtual-reality environments, such as simulation video games, can create false pools of knowledge. This is a potentially a big deal for the “serious games” folks, because many of them create brilliant little simulations as a way of educating people about complex situations. Cool enough! But what if they these sims also unintentionally impart bogus knowledge — making the gamers feel so artificially sure of the complex system that they attribute properties to it that don’t exist?
Interesting stuff to think about, either way.
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).
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