An interview with Memory Researcher, Dr. James Lampinen.
Conducted via email by John S. Rhodes (19-June-2000)
Source Monitoring, False Memories, and the Legal System
You recently were in the news regarding work that you did related to jurors, publicity, and memory. Could you give us a quick explanation of that work?
We've been doing some recent work applying a concept known as Source Monitoring (developed by Marcia Johnson at Princeton) to various applied issues including jury trials and memory for political speeches.
The work on pretrial publicity was done with Jamie Huffman Jones, who will be enrolled at the Law School of the University of Kansas next year. The basic idea is this: You sometimes not only need to remember a piece of information but you also need to remember where you heard that piece of information. This is because sources of information can vary in terms of how reliable they are.
If I believe I read something in Newsweek when I really read it in some trashy supermarket tabloid then I am likely to end up believing something that is pretty unreliable. Unfortunately people can sometimes remember a piece of information but become confused about where they heard it. When this happens its called a Source Monitoring Error.
This is a potential problem in legal cases in which there is pretrial publicity. In such cases, jurors are instructed to disregard the pretrial publicity and rely only on evidence legally admitted at trial. But this assumes that people will be able to accurately remember which pieces of information were presented at trial and which were presented in the news media. We found that mock jurors often made mistakes when attempting to do this, mistakenly believing that information from the media had actually been directly presented during the trial.
This is a difficult question and its not clear exactly who has the primary responsibility. Is it the news media's responsibility? Is it the judicial system's responsibility? Is it the individual juror's responsibility? The juror is the person after all who has sworn the oath. There is no perfect solution but my advice would be that if you are called for jury duty in a case with extensive pretrial publicity you should keep in mind that the pretrial publicity could be influencing your verdict without you even being aware of it. And if you are unsure whether a crucial piece of evidence was actually presented during the trial then you should ask that the relevant portion of the testimony be read back to you so you can be sure.
False memories are memories for events that never happened or memories for events that did happen that a greatly distorted. Whether or not something is a false memory is probably a matter of degree because all of our memories are probably distorted to some extent.
Because court cases rely on the testimony of witnesses, factors that limit the accuracy of that testimony are especially troubling. We've seen for instance, a large number of people released from prison recently when new evidence (often DNA) exonerates them. In the vast majority of the cases these false convictions relied on faulty eyewitness accounts.
The sleeper effect occurs when information that is initially disregarded because it comes from a disreputable source is later accepted because the person forgets the source and only remembers the information.
In regards to pretrial publicity, sleeper effects are a problem because one common judicial remedy in cases with pretrial publicity is to issue a continuance to allow the publicity to die down. While this may decrease the public passions that have been aroused by the media attention, it also makes it more likely that potential jurors will be subject to source monitoring errors.
How do you think your research applies to advertising both on the internet and off?
Of course, advertising presents people with information just like any other source of information and so people can become confused about whether the information comes from an advertisement or (no offense to the advertisers out there) some less biased source.
Tim Odegard, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, and I have looked at this issue in the area of political advertisements. As you know, politicians often use attack ads to characterize (and sometimes mischaracterize) their opponents positions on various issues. For instance, in the recent primaries Bill Bradley accused Al Gore of distorting his positions on Medicare.
An especially pernicious trend in my opinion is that some of these ads have been run by neutral sounding groups that may be serving as surrogates for particular candidates. For instance, right before the crucial NY primaries, a group began running ads about John McCain's views on funding breast cancer research. It was later found that this group had ties to George Bush (although it was never established that there was any sort of official coordination between Bush and this group).
The problem here is that these ads appear to be from a neutral group when really they aren't. We've recently done some work that we presented at the meeting of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (SARMAC) showing that people will often come to incorporate information from negative political ads into their memory for the opinions of the politician being attacked. This was especially likely when the ad was portrayed as coming from a neutral sounding group.
I'm certainly not an expert on either marketing or the internet. But I do use the internet a lot and it seems to me that the internet advertiser is faced with a dilemma. And the real crux of the dilemma is that nobody goes to a website to look at the ads! People go to websites to do cool fun useful stuff. So on the one hand, an ad has to be interesting enough to draw attention away from what the person is actually trying to do while at the same time not be so distracting that the person can't do what they're really there for.
I play games on Excite sometimes and there is this majorly annoying ad. Its an animated ad that has a butterfly that keeps swooping down into my periphery. I end up with a headache when ever that ad comes on because it distracts me from the game I'm trying to play. I hate that ad and will never buy a product from that company.
As far as memory and advertisements there are a few things to keep in mind. First, keep in mind that an advertisers goal is to form a connection between the product name and the service being provided such that when one thinks of the service one thinks of the product name. One way advertisers go wrong is to develop memorable ads where that connection is never made. I still remember "Where's the beef?" but I don't really remember what company put out that ad.
Second, at some point learning asymptotes. Repeating an ad after that point will not improve consumer memory for the brand. Practically what this means is that continued investment in that ad campaign is unlikely to lead to any more profits. There are two approaches therefore that make sense to me, although I am unaware of whether either has been empirically tested. First, after the learning that results from a particular ad asymptotes it might be possible to push the learning somewhat higher by varying the ad being used. This is consistent with my overall understanding of how memory operates, although as I said, I don't know if this has ever been empirically tested. Second, it might make sense to vary the spacing of the ads such that after an individual has been exposed a number of times to an ad, you may want to lengthen the interval between exposures to that ad. That way, you are only investing in showing the person the ad enough so that the persons learning does not fall from its ceiling rate.
I think I could give you a number of different answers to this question but I'm going to give you a very personal one. To me, I do science because I love the process of discovery. So to me, when I come up with an idea I don't care if its applied or theoretical or what as long as its an interesting puzzle. I think that frame of mind is common to most scientists, even ones working on very applied questions. What's fun for me about applied questions is that you are constantly dealing with the confluence of a very large number of variables. The real world isn't simple! And so its challenging to try to determine exactly how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. That's why I do both basic and applied research. And I hope that what I do is beneficial in at least some small way as well.
I'm going to re-interpret this question in a way I like a little better. And I'm going to answer it as what ideas from Psychology can be applied to web design. For me, the central idea in modern Psychology is that people are not passive information sponges. They are not blank slates. They come into situations with preconceived notions and ideas about what they expect. Psychologists call these preconceived ideas schemas.
People have schemas about every thing in the world. People have schemas about situations. People have schemas about other people. People even have schemas about themselves. And of course, anybody who surfs the web a lot undoubtedly has a schema about how websites are set up.
With regard to websites, people are likely to have schemas about both content and about form. Memory research shows that if you violate people's expectations about content, you cause them to think. If you cause them to think they are more likely to remember the content. Plus they find the whole experience more interesting and enjoyable. Think about it. If you go to a lecture and the Professor just does a typical lecture, you forget it five minutes after you leave the classroom. But if the Professor doesn't just provide a standard lecture in outline form but instead provides interesting, unexpected, compelling examples, you get hooked. When it comes to content, violating expectations makes things fun and memorable.
The opposite is true when it comes to form. If you violate people's expectations about form you just end up confusing people and pissing them off. That's because, as much as web designers think about form, the user doesn't care about form. Why should they? The user is interested in getting to your interesting content and if you make that difficult you may end up losing the user. The easiest way to do avoid that is to present your content in a format that is intuitive for the user, one that matches their expectations.
An analogy helps. If you go to a movie and the plot is predictable, you won't enjoy the movie. Predictability in content is bad. But if you go to a movie and the movie uses the standard conventions of narrative form (dialog, foreshadowing, etc.) that is not bad. Following those conventions gives you pegs for understanding the content.
So that's what I take as contemporary Psychology's basic advice for web designers. Surprise people with cool interesting content, make navigating easy with predictable (redundant) form.
What is your role at the University of Arkansas? What are your core research areas?
I'm an Assistant Professor of Psychology. My main research interests are in the nature of consciousness, especially as it applies to memory, memory distortion, and psychology and the legal system.
For reading I love Salinger, Vonnegut, Updike, Hemmingway, Ring Lardner, Mark Twain.
Like I think is true of the general public, what draws me to a site is if it has great content, what pushes me away from a site is if they are annoying and hard to navigate. But content is definitely first. These are some of the sites I have bookmarked.
and in a shameless act of self promotion...
Huh? Remember? What?
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