Repetition, Memory, and the Trace/Decay Theory

by Bill Henthorn on April 15, 2010

underwater deep water with light flowing from above

You’re who? And what is it you do?

Last time, we discovered our minds make its conclusions based on how constantly things are usually connected together: in time, in space, and in similarity:

Shoes and socks. Crowded roads during rush hour. 2% milk always on the coffee shop condiments table. Bev and Tom are always together. Floor tiles are almost always square or rectangular. Carving knife is always where you put it.

Today, we continue to dig deeper into the psychology of getting your messages across instead of having them blocked like some psychological spam filter …

As we look at the laboratory-tested and proven psychological fact that our minds learn and remember certain things best depending on how many times they’re repeated and when and how important they are to us. How many times? When? What do we mean by important?

What do people actually remember?

Psychology easily explains how memory works and how repetition either enhances that memory and people’s ability to remember anything — or worsens it.

They call it the Trace/Decay theory of memory and it goes like this:

It takes about 20 repetitions for anyone to learn something. (This is why you’ve heard that take 20 or 21 days to drop a bad habit and pick up a new good one.)

Those 20 repetitions are like an investment you make — just like you would in your marketing messages.

Once you’ve made all 20 investment installments, you don’t have to repeat them as often. In fact, psychologists found that it takes just 2 repetitions for people to actively remember what they’ve learned before but haven’t recalled in a while.

This is why advertising practices pulsing and flighting, where you run your ads for a while, then stop them for a period, then run them again for shorter periods. It’s not only a smart way to stretch precious advertising dollars (economics), but it harnesses the fact that once you’ve created the memory, you need fewer repetitions to help people recall it later (psychology).

Are you making the mistake of not investing enough time to help your audience learn your message? Or how about not benefitting from your investment by coming back to it later with a few more messages?

What’s remembered the best?
What’s hardly ever remembered?

Psychological studies give the answers plain and simple:

  • First and Last: first and last messages are recalled the best. The ones in between are recalled the least. That’s why a lousy movie can still be great if the beginning and the ending are wonderful
  • First impressions count: the state of being first often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression, nearly impossible to erase. That’s why being first to market is so important with dot-coms in virgin online categories
  • Recency: things most recently learned are remembered best. Remember how it takes 20 repetitions for your audience to learn your message?
  • Filled with meaning for them: the meaningfulness of an event enhances memory (especially a historic or tragic event, like the JFK assassination or the Space Shuttle explosion or Hurricane Katrina or something within your family or group of friends) and so does the relevancy (do your messages address issues relevant to your audience who wants to hear about them?)
  • Point it out to them: Called the “cued retrieval technique,” it’s more than giving them a hint. It’s showing it to them and saying, “Remember this about optical illusions? That they’re fascinating because we realize our mind plays tricks on us. The lines are straight or the same length. Remember now?”
    Examples Four Optical Illusions

And our minds learn and remember certain things best depending on how many times they’re repeated and when and how important they are to us:

We learn best if we’ve had 20 or more impressions or marketing messages … and we can best remember later with 2 messages … and we remember the first and the last the best … along with stuff that’s filled with meaning of significance, tragedy, relevance, and importance … and if it’s specifically pointed out to us and put in front of us again

TODAY’S TIP: FIRST: Make sure you give your audience enough times to learn who you are and what you do.

THEN: Make sure you remind them from to time so you reactivate that memory investment you worked so hard to make.

“Yes, but Bill, they already know exactly what I do. I email them once a month.”

Each of your messages is like the morning fog that evaporates from all minds by 12pm — except from your own mind. Most likely, they vaguely know what you do.

NEXT TIME: We continue understanding the deep psychology of how to effectively use repetition in our messages by looking at how the mind tricks itself into believing things as silly as: “Because night follows day, day causes night.”

Find out next time as we continue to chart the underlying currents of psychology, sociology, and economics that flow together as marketing.


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Related posts:

  1. Regularity Theory and Constant Connections
  2. Psychology shows us how to use repetition effectively
  3. The power of the story or narrative to sidestep the truth
  4. Why do repeated messages lose their effectiveness?
  5. COMING SOON: Below everything is the DEEP reason for its being …