Essays & Articles


Memory is more important than actuality

Column was written for Interactions. © CACM. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included. The definitive version was published in Interactions: Norman (2009). Memory is more important that actuality. Interactions, volume 16, issue 2, pages 24-26.

“Your discussion regarding … the fact that memory of an event is more important than the experience made me remember my trip to Thailand a few years ago…

· I traveled for three weeks and lost 10 pounds because I didn’t like any food.

· There were insects “on steroids” everywhere I turned

· and the restrooms were no joy…

“However, I have had the time of my life and I would go back in a second.”(email, Nov. 10, 2008 from Tammy Guy. Reproduced with permission.)

As interaction designers, we strive to eliminate confusion, difficulty, and above all, bad experiences. But you know what? Life is filled with bad experiences. Not only do we survive them, but in our remembrance of events, we often minimize the bad and amplify the good. Consider the email that starts this article (which was accompanied by photographs of horrendous, insect-like food, a huge spider, and an unseemly-looking squat toilet. Would you go back? My correspondent would. If the total experience was good enough, I bet many of you would too.

What is it about our experiences that lead us to repeat them – and recommend them – despite the bad parts? It turns out there are good psychological reasons for this. Let me call this “the distancing effect.” We remember events differently when we are at a distance from them, whether the distance be time or space. We anticipate and evaluate the future, remember and reflect upon the past. Both are at a distance in time from the event itself. In the anticipation of events, we review the past in order to make choices for the future. In the memory of events, some things fade from memory faster than others. Details fade faster than higher-level constructs. Emotions fade faster than cognitions. In psychology, these phenomena have been studied under several rubrics, including “temporal construal theory” and “rosy remembrance.” There is considerable psychological evidence to support the notion that positive and negative events fade at different rates from memory, and that affective elements fade differently than cognitive ones (or in my terminology, reflective memories fade most slowly)[i].

The email story is but one example of many. The implication for design is clear. We should not be devoting all of our time to provide a perfect experience. Why not? Well, perfection is seldom possible. More importantly, perfection is seldom worth the effort. So what if people have some problems with an application, a website, a product, or a service? What matters is the total experience. Furthermore, the actual experience is not as important as the way it is remembered.

The argument starts with a simple thought experiment. Suppose in some task, using a product, or getting a service from a company, you had some perfectly horrid experience along with some positive ones. Now just suppose that you had no memory of the horrid experience. Would you go back and repeat the experience? Most people would repeat something they remembered as enjoyable. Of course the premise is suspicious: if the experience were truly that horrible, I would maintain a memory of the negative parts. Yes, but memories for bad experiences dissipate differently than those for good ones. The negative emotions associated with the bad parts fade away more quickly than the cognitive evaluation. So although I remember the events, the emotions have dissipated. Notice the delight with which the writer of the email shared her story of the negative experience with me. Yes, they were horrible. But yes, she would go back.

The problems and frustrations of life do not matter nearly as much as you think. What matters is the memory of the events. With positive memories, people go back to a website, store, or amusement park, return to Thailand, and recommend products to their friends.

Consider some simple case studies. I have asked people to tell me what they hate most about a wide variety of things. I asked about Apple’s operating system, iPod, iTouch, or iPhone. I asked what is hated most about a visit to a Disney theme park, about a cruise ship voyage. I asked about automobiles such as the VW Beetle or the Mini Cooper. In all cases, I get a litany of horror stories. “I hate the lines,” they say about Disney theme parks. “I hate the way Ikea forces me to go through the entire store.” When prompted, people are pretty good at bringing up a list of dislikes and even hates.

But then I ask if they would go back, or purchase the item again, or repeat the experience? Would they recommend it to their friends? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Not universally, I hasten to add, but way up there in terms of percentages. High enough percentages to make executives at these companies smile and nod their heads with satisfaction.

Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson identify three different aspects of an experience: “rosy projection,” “dampening” and “rosy retrospection.[ii]

Rosy projection: “the tendency for people to anticipate events as more favorable and positive than they describe the experience at the time of its occurrence”;

Dampening: “the tendency for people to minimize the favorability or pleasure of events they are currently experiencing”;

Rosy Retrospection: the tendency for people to remember and recollect events they experience more fondly and positively than they evaluated them to be at the time of their occurrence.”

There is considerable experimental evidence to favor this view. Note that we are speaking of events that would normally be seen as positive. For example, Mitchell, Thompson, et al. studied a 12-day tour of Europe, students going home for Thanksgiving vacation, and a 3-week bicycle tour across California. In these cases, the results were all similar. Before an event, people look forward with positive anticipation. Afterwards, they tend to remember with fond memories. During? Well, reality seldom lives up to expectations, so lots of things go wrong, some of it pretty horribly wrong. But afterwards? The unpleasantness fades and the fond memories remain, perhaps to intensify, and even get amplified beyond reality.

Psychologists who study natural memories are quite familiar with these results. People sometimes will fondly remember events that never happened (and strenuously insist that they did happen, despite the evidence). In one experiment, people recalled seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney World despite the fact that he is not a Disney character and could not be seen there. As the authors of this study said, “”To know that a memory is reconstructed and not necessarily a veridical representation does not make it any less meaningful or enjoyable at the time the person is remembering the event.”[iii]

Although the studies have primarily been for events that are anticipated as being positive, I presume similar psychological mechanisms would apply to negative events, such as dental surgery, a colonoscopy, or other unpleasant events.

For us in the design profession, there is much to be learned from these observations. Do people hate the lines at a Disney theme park? Absolutely. Would they go back? Most people would. Disney does its best to provide delightful, memorable experiences, the key words being memorable and delightful. Do we really get frustrated when our iPhone or iPod crashes, when we can’t remember how to turn off the iPod, when we discover we can’t change the battery, when the case scratches? People brag to me about how easy these devices are to use, but when I ask them to demonstrate various features they stumble, flail away for awhile, apologize and give up. But do they care? No. Do they love these experiences? Do they love the device? Would they buy it again, recommend it to their friends, eagerly purchase the next version? Yes and yes. Some people even save the boxes their devices came in, tell stories about their love for them, and take great pride in ownership.

In my own life I have experienced the negative moments of things turning into fond memories over time. I remember fondly a vacation trip in Spain when my wife and I drove from central Spain to France. Along the way we stopped at a lovely store and purchased a picnic lunch, but after we drove out to the countryside, climbed up a hill, and sat on the grass with a wonderful view and opened the package of food, we discovered garbage and scraps for the wonderful sausage and cheese we thought we were buying. A horrid experience that is, today, for me at least one of the highlights of the trip. Rosy remembrance indeed.

As is true with all psychological generalizations, people vary. There is solid experimental evidence to defend the general proposition that the positive outweighs the negative, but not always. In the case of the drive through Spain, my wife vehemently objected to my rosy remembrance. “I totally disagree with you,” she wrote in the margins of the manuscript. “You need to explain how a normal person could have a fond feeling for such a negative memory. I would never wish to repeat that experience!” True, my fond memory is of the total experience, which includes the negative event. And of course my fondness may reflect the fact that I am an observer and story teller, so every experience, whether positive or negative, adds to my collection, often useful at unknown times in the future (for example, suddenly recalling it while writing this article). Would I want to go back to Spain? Yes. Would I want that exact sequence of events to be repeated? Of course not. But the disagreement between the two of us reflects real disagreements among people. Generalizations about human behavior should always be viewed with caution.

So what does this mean to the designer? Design for memory. Exploit it. What is the most important part of an experience? Psychologists emphasize what they call the primacy and recency effects, with recency being the most important. In other words, what is most important? The ending. What is next most important? The start. So make sure the beginning and the end are wonderful. Make sure there are reminders of the good parts of the experience: Photographs, mementos, trinkets. Make sure the experience delights, whether it be the simple unfolding of a car’s cup holder or the band serenading departing cruise ship customers. Accent the positive and it will overwhelm the memory for the negative.

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being The Design of Future Things. He lives at

Thanks to Liz gerber for her many discussion on this topic with me and for telling me about the papers on Rosy Retrospection.

Braun-LaTour, K. A., LaTour, M. S., Pickrell, J. E., & Loftus, E. F. (2004). How and When Advertising Can Influence Memory for Consumer Experience. Journal of Advertising, 33(4), 7-25.

Mitchell, T., & Thompson, L. (1994). A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy Prospection & Rosy Retrospection. In C. Stubbart, J. Porac & J. Meindl (Eds.), Advances in managerial cognition and organizational information-processing (Vol. 5, pp. 85-114). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press

Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal Adjustments in the Evaluation of Events: The “Rosy View”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421-448.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal Construal. Psychological Review, 110(3), 403-421.

[i] (Trope & Liberman, 2003)

[ii] (T. Mitchell & Thompson, 1994; T. R. Mitchell, Thompson, Peterson, & Cronk, 1997)

[iii] (Braun-LaTour, LaTour, Pickrell, & Loftus, 2004)