Virtual reality enhances recall but also produces false memories

According to a study by Anne Schlosser, a professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Marketing and International Business, virtual reality not only enhances the recall of recently learnt materials, it also creates virtual memories.

Here’s the abstract from the paper, published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research:

Two experiments examined the effect of interacting with a virtual object (i.e. object-interactivity) on true and false memories. Although object-interactivity will likely improve memory of associations compared to static pictures and text, it may lead to the creation of vivid internally-generated recollections that pose as real memories. Consequently, compared to information conveyed via static pictures and text, object-interactivity may cause people to falsely recognize more non-presented features. The results support these hypotheses and provide converging evidence that this false recognition effect is due to using imagery during retrieval and is robust, emerging regardless of the individuals’ goals (to search or browse) or learning intent.

In both experiments, undergraduates were divided into two groups, and asked to use the internet to obtain information about a digital camera. One of the groups was directed to a website which utilized Macromedia Shockwave to create an interactive, virtual experience of the camera. The participants in this group were able to manipulate the virtual product. The other group was directed to a website containing static text about, and pictures of, the product, in a storyboard format.

Participants in both groups were given one of two ‘goals’: to either browse the site and find something interesting, or to search the site for specific information about the product. Both groups spent 5 minutes browsing the websites before completing a survey in which they were presented with a list of features, and asked whether or not each was present in the camera they had just learnt about.

The results of the first experiment supported the hypothesis that those participants who used the interactive site would have better recall of the features of the digital camera than those who used the static website. However, during the survey conducted after the second experiment, those participants who had used the interactive website to learn about the camera produced more false positives – that is, said that the camera had a feature that it actually lacked – than those who had used the static website. In both experiments, the goal of the participants (whether they were asked to browse the website or to search for information about the camera) had no effect on recall or the production of false memories.

This effect of object-interactivity on memory appears to be due to the quality of the memories produced. Object-interactivity produces a richer experience of the product, and, as a result, more vivid mental images are generated of the product. Vivid memories are more likely to contain imagined details than less vivid ones.

Schlosser says that her findings have important implications for those involved in advertising:

Although it may seem advantageous for consumers to believe that a product has features that it actually does not have…it may lead ultimately to consumer dissatisfaction. Because false memories reflect source-monitoring errors – or believing that absent attributes were actually presented in the marketing campaign – consumers who discover that the product does not have these attributes will likely feel misled by the company.

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