Good experiences vs. good memories

I recently came across ‘Random Assignment’, a fabulous blog looking at the application of social psychology in daily life (interesting topics and very accessible writing – consider following it). One of the posts had a link to this presentation by Professor of Psychology Paul Rozin:

Professor Rozin applies insights from psychology to understanding what makes for memorable meals. I think that these insights are very relevant to the design of customer interactions, too; for instance, following a customer complaint.

Insight 1: There is the experience, and there is the memory about the experience.

How we judge an experience and how we remember that experience are two separate things.

In marketing, we may be able to control aspects of the experience, such as how we present the product, what sort of retail environment we create or the training we provide to customer service staff. But ‘memories’ are entirely personal and subjective. Furthermore, they happen sometime in the future.

The experience and the memory are two very different phenomena, following very different processes and requiring very different skills. It is not enough for an organisation to deliver great experiences; it also needs to create the right type of memory around those experiences.

Insight 2: What makes a particular experience ‘good’, is not the same thing that makes the memory of that experience ‘pleasurable’.

In his talk, Professor Rozin’s presents a familiar scenario. Imagine that you book a place at your favourite restaurant, and you need to decide between:

  • Option A – ordering your favourite item on the menu
  • Option B – ordering something that you never tried before

If you choose option A, you immediately start feeling good about the future visit to the restaurant. The certainty of what the meal will taste like helps you to anticipate the pleasurable experience. This expectation is confirmed when you actually consume your favourite meal. Though, once you leave the restaurant, you will soon forget about the whole event.

If you choose option B, however, you can not start anticipating how good the meal will be, because you don’t actually know. The outcome is uncertain. On the actual day, you may actually be pleasantly surprised by the chosen item, and end up having a pleasurable experience. Or not. There is risk. But if the meal is good, that pleasant surprise will be imprinted in your mind, as a pleasurable memory.

In other words, options A and B optimise different stages of the consumption experience as summarised below:


Option A: familiarity

Option B: uncertainty










Insight 3: Pleasurable experiences are like good narratives. They require a great start (or two!), are well structured and end with a bang.

Drawing on fields of research as diverse as pain memory, music enjoyment and molecular gastronomy, Rozin concludes that the components of a memorable meal are:

  • The start has to be highly engaging, because the first part of the experience is what people will remember the most. This is called the primacy effect.
  • Intermissions create the opportunity for a 2nd beginning and, therefore, provide another opportunity to create a lasting memory.
  • Repetition of positive elements helps to create memories. Though, it is about the repetition in itself, not the number of times something is repeated. As per Rozin’s example, 2 little scoops of caviar are as effective as 4 in generating a pleasurable memory.
  • There needs to be a consistent narrative throughout the experience, because we are more likely to remember things that are associated with each other. This means that the type and order of activities is highly consequential for the assessment the experience, and that the structure needs to be carefully thought through.
  • There are opportunities to talk about aspects of the experience during the experience itself – e.g., talk about the various dishes while the meal is still happening.
  • The end needs to relate to the beginning, marking a clear conclusion to the narrative and reinforcing the positive (first) impression. The experience needs to end on a high note.

If we apply these principles to a service recovery scenario, for instance, we would:

  • Tell / show the customer that s/he is extremely important to us, and that the main goal of the conversation is to regain their trust;
  • At some point in the conversation, engender an intermission. For instance moving to another location, bringing in another member of staff, offering a coffee…; and restarting on the very positive note (in this case, assuring the customer that we are very keen to redeem ourselves for whatever went wrong);
  • When offering something that the customer values – e.g., an apology, access to a senior member of staff, a discount… – we need to do it more than once;
  • Ensure that the conversion progresses towards the ultimate goal but in a manner that is consistent with the overall tone and goal – for instance, if the conversation is about how the customer felt (emotions), we can not switch to focusing on material losses;
  • At various points during the conversation we need to ask the customer to confirm whether s/he is happy with the progression of the discussion and how the situation is being handled;
  • When the conversation ends, we can not let it just fizzle out. We need to end with a bang, and be consistent with the start. If the focus was on regaining trust, we need to end with a great demonstration that we are, indeed, trustworthy. If, instead, the focus was how special the customer is, we need to end on a personalised note – perhaps a handwritten message or a carefully chosen reward that really reflects how well we know this customer.

What do you think?

The application of the principles to this very simple scenario shows that delivering great experiences that create lasting memories requires both careful planning and flexibility. ‘Planning’ to think through how the various elements fit together to create the best possible experience and memory. ‘Flexibility’ to adapt to the very personal preferences and characteristics of the customer.

2 thoughts on “Good experiences vs. good memories

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