Last week’s Newsletter raised an interesting question for me. Where do associations come from and how long do they last? The use of my biceps can apparently induce favourable feelings and impulse purchases. How did that association arise?
We wake up when it gets light. That might be in the morning, or it might be someone turning bright lights on in a restaurant. We associate brightness with activity. The association is so strong that it has physiological effects on our body. Is the association a basic instinct that comes from evolution or is it something we learn? Shift workers can afterall learn to “wake up” in the dark.
Some associations last all our lives. Interpersonal physical contact is a hall mark of all animal life. This is particularly true of humans. The first communication we receive is a touch from our mothers. New born babies already have a sense of touch even though their other senses are yet to fully develop. Development psychologists have demonstrated how crucial is that touch. It creates the connection between mother and child. Heal pricks and inoculations are less stressful if the child is cuddled by its mother. Infants and children deprived of touch develop emotionally and psychologically less well. That association of comfort and touch stays with us throughout our life.
Reinforcement is Key
There is no separate compartment in our brains labelled “memory”. Current neuroscience theory suggests that a memory occurs as a trace. Like a thread it crosses many parts of the brain. If we need the memory our brain follows the thread, reactivating those cells. The more often we repeat the experience the more threads are laid down. The more threads, the more “permanent” the memory. We remember it with more accuracy and can recall it more quickly.
Associations can be made at the point of use. A lavender oil can be described as “relaxing” before aromatherapy application. Then heart rate and skin conductance will fall during the massage. What if the identical oil is described as “stimulating”? Then the heart rate and skin conductance rise. If the experience is not repeated then the memory and its association will fade.
Some memories are so impactful that the can imprint deeply. Just how quickly and deeply we can learn associations was demonstrated in a rather frightening way. Omer Van den Bergh of the University of Leuven in Belgium adjusted the amount of carbon dioxide in the air breathed by respondents. He did it to induce a sense of choking or smothering. For some respondents (or should I say “victims”? ), he introduced an odour into the chamber he was using. A single exposure created the association between the smell and the distressed feeling. Immediately thereafter the smell alone created the physiological symptoms. These included a pounding heart rate and sweating.
He was able to show that the effect was even more pronounced if he used odours we associate as “bad” or malodourous. This reinforcing the association. Even these associations did not last. However it took repeated exposure to the smell, without the presence of the symptoms. Only then did the physiological effects fade. It seems our associations are constantly evolving.
Associations are Both Context Specific and Culturally Bound
In Western cultures, certain scents are associated with being hot and others with being cold. Scents like warm vanilla sugar or cinnamon are thought of as hot. Eucalyptus-spearmint or peppermint are cold. We learn these associations through repeated exposure. In a famous experiment identical gel packs were scented with “cool” and “hot” scents. Those that had a “cool” scent were perceived to be better at cooling participants hands.
Colours can also carry associations. At the end of the meal diners got their bill in a gold-coloured folder. In the next week the folder was an identical one in black. Those presented with the gold folder tipped on average fourteen percent more. The individual server had no effect on the size of the tip. Nor did the method of payment (cash or credit card). It was only the colour of the folder.
American diners associated “gold” with prestige. Gold Credit Cards, gold standard rooms, gold frequent flyer levels all contribute to the belief that gold is more prestigious. Since tipping is very status orientated, the prestige of the gold had its effect. Whether such an association exists in other cultures is not known. Cultures are not uniform. UK respondents associate a blue coloured liquid with a raspberry or strawberry flavour. This is surprising but due to a well-known sports drink with that combination. The same colour presented in Asia sets an expectation of a mint or cranberry flavour.
Music especially carries with it associations that are culturally bound. There was an experiment in the wine section of a British supermarket. French accordion music increased the ratio of French to German wines. Three French wines were sold for every one German. German bierkeller music reversed the preferences. German wine rose to eighty percent of purchases. Buyers were asked whether the music had influenced their purchase. Most customers claimed that it had no effect. Much of our sensory input is processed subconsciously.
Classical music seems to be associated with quality. At least this is the case in the West. Classical music was played in a North American wine store. Shoppers spent considerably more than when popular music was played. The same effect was demonstrated in the U.K. The music played in a Midlands restaurant varied. Diners spent ten percent more when classical music was played (rather than popular or no music).
Third and Fourth Age consumers have many more memories to draw upon when building their perception of a service experience. They are more likely to have multiple exposures to that experience. They will have “expert” scripts. Each memory piece of the perception jigsaw will carry stronger associations.
Age brings with it increased expertise at generalisation and pattern recognition. If a piece is missing from the jigsaw puzzle of perception we are more likely to be able to find something similar. Somewhere in our memory there will be something we can use. That piece may not quite fit and introduce extraneous associations.