Memory and decision-making

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The memory system plays a key role in the decision-making process because individuals constantly choose among alternative options. Due to the volume of decisions made, much of the decision-making process is unconscious and automatic. Information about how a decision is made is remembered and used for future decisions. Memory is susceptible to biases, but it is integral to the formation of preferences and to differentiation between choices.

Preferences-as-memory approach[edit]

The preferences-as-memory (PAM) framework[1] is a model that maps the role of memory in decision-making. It suggests that decisions are chosen based on the retrieval of relevant knowledge from memory. This knowledge includes information from previous identical and similar situations. The model assumes that, because the memory system is so complex, there never is one precise optimal choice.

Classical models[edit]

Classic models of judgment and decision-making assume that all individuals abide to a given set of assumptions when making a decision.[2] Humans are believed to have stable preferences that follow the rules of continuity and precision, and so we will make consistent choices regardless of the influence of any internal or external factors. These assumptions have been challenged. A growing body of evidence suggests that our preferences are constructed for each novel occurrence of a situation and thus are not as stringent as previously thought.[3] The PAM framework diverges from classical models and views our preferences as volatile and subject to change.

Impact of memory on decisions[edit]

Memory integration[edit]

Memory integration dictates one's preferences for a given alternative. The PAM model suggests that preferences are formed when individuals retrieve from memory a set of queries regarding the attributes of the alternative choices. These queries are believed to be an automatic, unconscious process. Many individuals think largely in terms of emotions when asked to make a decision, and so the way in which a question is posed as well as the manner in which it is asked impacts the decision-making process. If asked to choose where to go for dinner, one will select a series of possible restaurants, consider each option, and determine the positive attributes of each. The restaurant chosen will be the one with the greatest number of positive attributes.

This choice depends on the order in which one evaluates the benefits of each option and whether one considers the negative rather than the positive possibilities. The phrasing of a question also affects this query process. For example, "the car tapped the pole" versus "the car crashed into the pole." The framing of a question primes different components of the memory system and has the ability to reconstruct our memories.[4] Memory is not an event that occurs in isolation, but is integrated and thus influenced by the goals of the decision-maker, the questions posed, and an infinite amount of internal and external factors.


The priming effect is another key aspect of how memory influences decisions. Priming activates a certain memory node that results in easier accessibility later on.[5] A recent study examined the impact of playing certain types of music in a store that sells wine. German wines were sold at a higher rate when German music was played, and French wines sold better when French music was played.[6] This effect resulted in a quarter of the variance in wine sales. Priming increases the accessibility of a memory and may be the reason we chose one alternative over the other.

Inhibition and memory reactivity[edit]

Memory for events is constantly changing in both its short-term accessibility and how the content is stored long-term.[7] A question posed before giving one's preference can influence the short-term accessibility of memory,[8] as can anchoring effects.[9] Questions posed also can have significant long-term effects, can reconstruct memory, and can predict or influence behavior. For example, students who answered affirmative to the question of whether they would vote in the upcoming election increased their voting behavior even though the question was asked months beforehand.[10]

The memory system suffers from inhibition. This is why it is difficult to hold two different phone numbers in working memory at the same time. Although it may seem that inhibition impedes our memory system, it allows humans to focus on the relevant details and ignore irrelevant ones when required to make quick decisions.[11] Earlier queries can establish preferences that inhibit responses to later queries. A person who is presented with two items and asked to choose between the two is more likely to be choose the item that was presented first.[12] Order matters because inhibition influences both our memory and preferences so that new information competes with older information in regards to memory space and memory associations.

Hierarchal structure of memory[edit]

The hierarchal structure of the memory system is a construct of elaborate categories that people create to classify objects. Instead of memory connections between all knowledge, we have connections between various concept nodes.[13] For example, a person who is asked to retrieve a bird from memory thinks first of the concept node of all animals, then of all animals that can fly, and finally of a bird that is the most stereotypical of the class; for example, a robin. A penguin would be less likely to be retrieved because a penguin is less typical of the class. This may be the reason why it is more difficult to make decisions about abstract, non-hierarchical concepts like time and money. It is easy to envision a pencil but more difficult to decide what to do with a sum of money or how to spend the next three hours of free time.

Implicit memory and decision-making[edit]

Implicit memory is a form of long-term memory not involved in conscious awareness. A process stored in implicit memory may be easy to carry out but difficult to verbalize. For example, although we can ride a bicycle even after a decade-long hiatus, it is difficult to explain to another individual how to do so. Evidence suggests that implicit memory, especially in the realm of advertising, may impact decision-making.[14]

People, as consumers, are surrounded by advertisements that promote businesses' products and services with the goal that we choose theirs over that of another competing brand. These advertisements are believed to become an internalized form of implicit memory in which, with no conscious awareness, people favor one brand over the other. Whether consciously or implicitly, we choose that which is in our memory system and with which we are familiar. The reasons for our preferences may reside in implicit memory and thus be unknown to us.[citation needed]

Memory, the environment, and decision-making[edit]

The event of a person having placed an item into memory implies that the person has had at least one encounter with that item. The memory system behaves optimally when memories that are more likely to be used are more easily retrievable than less-likely memories. Memory is influenced by practice effects, the concept that greater practice with an item results in easier retrieval; retention effects, which means that memories grow less likely to be retrieved as a longer period of time passes, and spacing effects, in which memories are more easily recalled if they are encoded into memory over a longer time interval.[15]

It is plausible that the environmental structure, which influences our memory structure, impacts how we create preferences and make decisions. Evidence suggests that the memory system is organized in a way that is adapted to the structure of the environment. We are thus able to predict when we will need a certain memory even after controlling for practice, retention, and spacing effects.[16]

Affect and memory[edit]

Memory and emotion, or "affect", are closely related and impact each other simultaneously. One's mood determines the thoughts he or she experiences as well as the memories that are recalled. A common example is that sufferers of depression find it difficult to recall happy memories because they are overwhelmed with negative thoughts. We recall from memory the information that reflects our current state.[17] Memory has been shown to influence decision-making behavior and, considering the reciprocal connection between the two, affect can as well.


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