Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

To know me is to like me II: Accessibility

Familiarity breeds preference by affecting memory.
Art Markman, Ph.D.
This post is a response to To know me is to like me I: Mere exposure by Art Markman, Ph.D.

We would all like to think of ourselves as good decision makers. For truly difficult decisions, we may spend a lot of time deliberating. Yet, for many decisions (some of them quite important) we seem to have formed preferences even before we have really worked through the pros and cons of the decision. Somehow, we seem to have preferences that are being driven by factors that fall outside our awareness.

Last post, I talked about one unconscious factor that may affect those preferences. When something is familiar, it is often liked more than something that is unfamiliar. What is making that happen?

Quite a bit of work suggests that accessibility is important for preferences. Accessibility is the speed that some though comes to mind. The easier it is for you to be able to think about an object, the more that you will like it. Research by a number of people including Ayelet Fishbach, John Bargh, Arie Kruglanski, and their many colleagues has examined this relationship.

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What does it mean for a concept to come to mind easily? In order for you to think about a concept, you must already have it stored in your memory. For example, you cannot think about tomato sauce unless you already know about it. Most of the time, you are probably not thinking about tomato sauce. If you are watching a movie about space aliens, then it would be disruptive (and more than a little strange) if you suddenly started thinking about tomato sauce. So, while you are watching this movie, the concept of tomato sauce is hard for you to retrieve from your memory. When you are in the grocery store, the situation is more conducive to thinking about tomato sauce, and so it is easier for you to call this concept to mind.

Situations in the world that make a concept easier to think about may also make it more likely that you will choose that concept. For example, when you walk into a movie theater, the smell of popcorn fills the air. That smell makes it easier for you to think about popcorn, and increases the chance that you will decide to buy some popcorn.

The thoughts you have about the world can also influence how easily a concept comes to mind. If you are a smoker, then the more you need to smoke, the more easily thoughts about cigarettes come to mind. These thoughts about cigarettes will then make it more likely that you will choose to smoke a cigarette.

Why does this matter?

Human memory operates automatically. We do not choose to remember things. When we enter a new situation, information related to that situation spring to mind in order to help us get around the world successfully. Because retrieval from memory is automatic, we are not always aware of what is causing us to think about a particular idea. And so we might be led to make a choice just because some aspect of a situation made an idea easier to think about.

The idea that choices can be driven by factors in the environment that are outside of our awareness leads to the topic of "subliminal advertising." But to really do justice to that concept, I'll need a bit of space. So stay tuned, because that will be the topic of the next post.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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