Is Phone Dependency Impacting Our Ability To Remember?

iPhone memory

In 2013, advertisers paid $4-million for a 30-second Superbowl ad. Thinking back to that memorable three-point victory by the Baltimore Ravens over the San Francisco 49ers, could you recall any of the ads the following day? What about today?

Was it $4-million well spent?

That question underlies new research from Yahoo Canada, presented by Nick Drew, the company’s Head of Research, but the implications about the methods that we use to recall things in the era of iPhones and pop-up reminders go far beyond TV ads.

Nick Drew, Head of Research at Yahoo Canada.
Nick Drew, Head of Research at Yahoo Canada.

“In the last 10 years or so, we are seeing a huge shift in the way we choose to remember things and the processes that we go through when we want to remember something,” Drew said in advance of his 5 Things Session at Dx3 2014 in March.

“[The phone has] become the most used memory tool.”

Drew conducted experiments where two groups of participants were shown videos, and then later quizzed on elements of the videos. One group was given a smartphone so that they could take pictures of the video while watching. The other group was simply asked to pay attention and rely solely on memory.

During the quiz component, the participants wore an Electroencephalography (EEG) cap to measure their brain activity, giving added insight into which parts of the brain were working while trying to recall the video.

Device dependency

The results of the study, which Drew will discuss at Dx3, demonstrate how consumers have come to rely on electronic devices as a repository for our memories.

“Because of the fact that the smartphone is always with us, it’s become the most used memory tool,” Drew said.

When we want to remember something, whether that’s a phone number, appointment, shopping list, person, place or event, we depend on digital devices to hold onto those memories and ideas for us. “Now, It’s second nature for us [to say], ‘wait a minute, I’ll just get my phone’,” Drew said.

EEG with 32 elektrodes
An EEG capture device, similar to the one used in this research.

This has made phone users more dependant on our phones as memory tools, and this dependency is, as a result, changing the way that we pay attention to the present. One finding from the report is that the group that used their phones as memory tools seemed to have more fun.

“The level of emotional engagement… was significantly higher,” Drew said. “They were enjoying it more because they were playing with their smartphone and taking a photo while they did it.”

This could be a clue for advertisers, looking for a way to increase recall when shoppers are at a crucial purchasing moment. If consumers reach for their phones to remember what to buy, associating a pleasing brand moment with their phone could be a tremendous advantage.

Budweiser horses notwithstanding, learning more about why and how consumers recall advertising could be the difference between paying to reach your audience, and a $4-million waste.


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About Ben Myers

Ben Myers is a creative digital marketer in Toronto. Contact through Linkedin or @benkmyers on Twitter.

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3 thoughts on “Is Phone Dependency Impacting Our Ability To Remember?

  1. Ben, I understand the point you’re trying to make, but aren’t advertisers who spend $4 million on a Superbowl ad the same companies who also spend another $400 million on their other marketing initiatives? The Superbowl ad is just 1% of their annual advertising budget, so whether it’s wasteful or not doesn’t matter too much.

    1. Thanks for the comment! You probably know the saying in advertising, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”.

      I hear you – the Superbowl is definitely just a part of a huge plan for large brands who can spend that cash. For other companies with smaller budgets, who invest in billboards, online banner ads, or radio/TV advertising, I think this research is an important part of the puzzle for learning more about which forms of advertising actually have an impact on buying decisions and which are simply forgotten.

  2. This all relates back to neural trick our brains play called associative memory. Associative memory is when we rely on other people or things to remember things for us; it applies to notes we write on paper, we do it with source materials like reference texts and we do it all of the time with the people around us to remember context to conversations and facts.

    The question whether smart phones are affecting our memory isn’t so much one of our brains actually doing less work. It is that we are relying on fewer objects, people and texts to store our notes, meetings and factoids.

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