Category Archives: memory systems

First Impressions Last

Ever wonder what is the maximum number of items a drop down list can have? Does the sequence of the items in the list affect the interaction of the viewer?

The Serial Position Effect explains the phenomenon of memory where items presented at the beginning and ends of lists are more likely to be remembered than those in the middle of the list. The term ‘Serial Position Effect’ was first coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus based on studies on himself and others, where he best recalled items from the end of a list (the recency effect) and more frequently among the first items than among the middle ones (the primacy effect).

For example, consider the following list and try to remember the items in the list.

List image


It will be observed that you will more reliably recall items in position 1, 2, 6 and 7 than those in the position 3, 4 and 5.

When we recall the first few items on the list, its called the Primary Effect. Primacy effects happen because there is more chance of earlier items being stored in long-term memory (long term memorisation requires rehearsal of the list with less likelihood of remembering the further along the list you go). When lists are rapidly presented, the effect is weaker because there is no time for long-term memory to work. When lists are presented slowly, the effect is stronger as there is more time to store in long-term memory.

Recency effects occur as the last few items in a list are still in working memory and therefore readily available. The strength of this effect is not impacted by the speed of delivery. However, passage of time has a huge effect on the recall of information, weakening the recency effect. If you are distracted by other matters for even 30 seconds, then this effect completely disappears. This is not true on the primacy effect which relies on long-term memory.

What does this have to do with making great content, you ask?

Well, great content starts with great copy, and the arrangement of that copy can dramatically impact how much or how little your viewer will remember. Your content may relay several messages in a list, or you might ask viewers to remember a coupon code, phone number or SMS code. In each of these cases, even a simple modification to how the information is presented can have a significant impact on how much the viewer will remember later.

You can take advantage of this knowledge when presenting information in lists (be it a set of links, your sales pitch, a feature list, client list, etc.)

– Place the least important items in the middle of your lists because these items tend to be stored less frequently in long-term memory and working memory.

– If the viewer’s decision is to be taken long after exposure (> 30 seconds), then place the most important items first. If the decision is to be taken immediately after reading the list, then place the most important item last on the list.

If all the information is equally important, then the best thing to do is group the items in chunks. Presenting long lists of information places significant strain on limited attentional resources and restricted memory systems, especially short-term memory, where it appears only three or four items ‘chunks’ can be maintained at one time. Therefore, you should reduce the strain on viewers by presenting information in small pockets, or chunks, and limit the amount of distraction between presentation of items and recall.

Quite simply, Chunking is a way of arranging information so that your memory has to recall fewer items later. Chunking is the most effective when all of the items in the list are roughly the same “type” and “size” (e.g. numbers versus words versus phrases). That’s where coding comes in. Simply put, Coding is how our brains make things easier to remember by arranging them into groups of like items. By “like items,” I mean practically any grouping that makes the list’s elements seem more similar to each other.

Our brains do chunking and coding automatically as we make our way through the world. However, given how much competition and visual clutter your content may face, you might want to take these few steps to make sure the process is as easy as possible. After all, viewers may only be gracing you with a few seconds of their attention, so you need to make that exposure count.

Innovation Infanticide

Our CEO, Biju Dominic recently spoke on ‘Innovation Infanticide’ at TEDxXIMB. $1.4 Trillion was spent on R&D in 2012. 1,300,000 research papers are written every year. Why then do we have so little to show when it comes to Innovation? Why is Apple the only name that pops instinctively in or heads when we talk about Innovation? Watch this video to find out.


Warning: The video quality is poor due to bad lighting. However, the audio more than makes up for it

Did the police really take too long?

The news is abound with the shocking narration by the friend of the Delhi rape victim as regards the efficiency of the Delhi Police. According to his report, the police spent more than half an hour arguing about jurisdiction after arriving at the scene of the event, tragically delaying reaching both the victim and her friend to a hospital. The police, however, has issued a counter statement with the following details:

The information regarding the incident was received by Police Control Room operator at 10.21pm through a phone call received on 100. Two PCR vans reached the spot at 10.27pm and 10.29pm respectively. The victims were taken in the second PCR van, which was assigned the call at 10.24pm and left the spot at 10.39pm for Safdarjung Hospital, 10 minutes after they reached the spot. According to the earlier police report, however, where the time was manually recorded, the van left the spot at 10:31pm, 2 minutes after reaching the spot. The correction to 10:39pm was made after checking the computerized log sheets.

Why this massive difference between the reports of the victim’s friend, the police officer and the actual time?








One possible explanation is that mind warps how we perceive and recollect the passage of time. Clock time and Mind time aren’t always aligned. Our perception of time is affected by factors like the emotions we’re experiencing, context we’re in, tiredness, even small factors like eye-movements and age. Take for instance, how life threatening situations alter our recollections of the passage of time – we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. This richer encoding of memory as a result of increased attention causes threatening events to appear, retrospectively, as though they lasted longer. Also, the emotions we experience directly affect our perception of the passage of time, and not just the recollection of it. Negative emotions make the passage of time seem longer than it is. This is a function of the brain’s most basic survival mechanism- our attention and all our mental and bodily efforts are geared towards helping us survive. The more information we record, the more equipped we are to deal with the situation the next time. We could hypothesize that the victim’s brain was recording a lot of information that could explain why it seemed so long from his perspective.

This explains the entirely natural recollection of the victim’s friend’s about length of the conversation, shrouded in a life-threatening situation of intensely high-stress. And the reverse could be hypothesized for the policemen, who, as a result of their heated discussion probably felt that time had passed much quicker than it actually had. This is not to say that the police hadn’t committed their share of follies – in not immediately using the first van that reached the spot and not reaching them to the nearest hospital, but the one designated for medico-legal cases though it was farther away.

It is important to keep in mind, however,  that in the case of high-stress incidents, eye-witnesses’ and by-standers’ perceptions and memories are fallible. This is not limited to the just the sense of time but also information in most other modalities like visual, auditory, etc as they are prone to being coloured by various factors, most important of all, emotions.

The solution, however, in the case of the Delhi Police, would not be to circulate more accurate reports about the turn-around time, but to actually minimize the response time – in a situation like this, 10 minutes is simply way too expensive -it could mean the difference between life-and-death.

Lets get emotional

Delhi Protests . (Source Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal)

The recent horrific rape and the subsequent protests have led to many emotional outbursts. Anger, Fear, Disappointment, Frustration, Anxiety, Hope..its been a wild ride of emotions. As expected, many have appealed for calm and a need for a ‘Rational’ and ‘Deliberate’ debate. And that we should not let emotions rule our decisions. The underlying belief is that we are rational, intelligent people who will analyze pros and cons and take decisions that can satisfy all stakeholders.

We think emotions lead to bad decisions and that we are capable of wishing them away.  The only problem with this intelligent sounding argument is that it is largely flawed, on various counts.

Evidence from Neuroscience and Behavioural Sciences suggests that our decision making is largely a non-conscious process. And that Emotions play a much bigger role than we think. Scientists say people with damaged emotional circuits in their brains cannot even take simple decisions, decisions like what time to meet and where to meet, leave alone life altering decisions.

Emotions, apparently are particularly useful when making tough decisions. Like choosing a life partner. There is no checklist or a deliberate analysis. We are guided by our emotions.

Moreover, Emotions lead to action where statistics struggle to. Look at the fund raising campaigns of successful charities. They do not present facts but narrate stories of individuals. These stories are personal and emotional. They lead to higher donations.

Emotions enhance learning as they strengthen associated memories. Neuroscientists say that the emotions are so intelligent that they’ve managed to turn mistakes in to educational events and that these capture the wisdom of experience.

And finally, Emotions are things that happen to us rather than those we wish to occur. Not that every emotion moderated decision is a good one, but what choice do we have ? We are wired to rely on emotions lot more than on objective analysis.

Therefore, a rational debate is unlikely to lead to any action because the complex nature of the problem will seem unsolvable. And those taking the final decisions are biased by their own emotions and beliefs. Two people can look at same piece of data and have differing interpretations. So, we cannot have a perfectly objective and rational decision in spite of best of our intentions.

So, I say, lets get emotional and stay emotional. Thats a scientific way to action.