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Memory, Preferences, and Choices: How Our Noses Impact Our Decisions

Our memories affect our choices. It makes a whole lot of sense: we decide based on what we know.  And if we don’t have any experience with a particular decision, we generalize. Was there something similar in the past? Something that I can relate this to, something that will help me choose? Memory can make an otherwise impossible decision tractable. But can we trust it?

Memory is unstable and selective, affecting the quality of decisions

Memory is a funny thing. We can be certain of something only to find it not so at all. A lot of time has passed since Plato’s wax tablet – a surface where impressions are made and last in their exact form until, with the passing of many years, the surface is wiped away. We now know that it’s not actually the case that memory goes from solid impression to forgetting, with no changes in between.

Quite the contrary. Memory is malleable. It’s flexible. It’s easy to influence. It’s at danger of becoming distorted every time we retrieve it, so that the memories we are most sure of (in other words, the ones we access most frequently) are the ones that are most vulnerable, most likely to be wrong.

Perhaps more importantly, memory can be very, very selective – which can, in some circumstances, mean the same thing as wrong. Consider a scenario where you’re buying a car: maybe you pick a model because you remember your grandfather driving the same one – and conveniently forget the accidents caused by its less than stellar safety rating. You’re not wrong per se, but your selective remembering might mean a choice that you’ll later regret.

Often, that selectivity is a direct result of our environment. What I remember at one point in time might be different from what I remember, say, later in the day, or once I’ve eaten, or when I’m indoors versus outdoors, wearing this jacket versus that one, talking with an old friend or a stranger. Memory is triggered by context, by cues that we retrieve from the environment, and as the context changes, so too do the elicited memories – and the decisions they help inspire.

The importance of context to choice

The quality of a choice can vary as a result of its triggers. We might get lucky and remember those things that lead us to buy the appropriate car, pick the right stock, believe the right person. Or, we might be unlucky and fall under an influence that takes us in a misleading direction. But do we want to leave it up to luck?

We don’t have to. And that’s the point: to be aware of the variability inherent in decisions that rely on memory and gain greater control over it, at least in choices that matter.

A logical place to start is with the thing that we can most control: ourselves. We can do little about our surroundings or decision context other than be aware of it. But we can learn to react to ourselves in ways that might improve our decision making ability.

Smell: A powerful example of contextual memory – and contextual decisions

Let me take a concrete example: one of the most powerful contextual cues that exists, smell. Just like posture, the actual, physical position of our bodies, can affect how we feel and the subsequent decisions we make (as I describer earlier in the week), so too can other bodily cues affect the memories we retrieve. When we smell, we remember—in fact, research has shown that the memories associated with smell are the most powerful of all—and what we smell affects what we remember, how we subsequently feel, and what we might be inclined to decide as a result.

This causal chain is explored in beautiful detail in the memoir Season to Taste, Molly Birnbaum’s exploration of her loss of smell. She describes the impact of anosmia (the inability to smell) on her psychological state and her life more broadly, and just as she wonders how important a role smell plays in things as deceptively simple as eating and as unmistakably complex as choosing a significant other, we wonder how many of her choices are impacted by the inability to smell – and how many were once affected by the previously unquestioned presence of smell.

Smells in the environment trigger associated memories, that may or may not be relevant to a decision we’re making. And if we’re lucky enough to never have experienced the loss of smell, we, unlike Birnbaum, will likely pay no attention to either the smell or the associated thoughts and emotions.

So let’s go back to our car purchase. Imagine that at the moment you’re in the lot, someone walks by with a mug of steaming hot chocolate. You might not even remember that he passed, but the smell triggers memories of your grandfather: he used to make you hot chocolate when you spent time together. It was your little ritual. And before you know it, you’re buying the wrong car, without even realizing why.

Now, imagine a different scenario. This time, there’s a pervasive smell of gasoline: the lot is across the street from a gas station. And you remember your mother warning you to be careful around gas, that it could catch fire, that you could get hurt.  Now, you’re focused on safety. You’ll likely be leaving the lot with a car that is quite different from your grandfather’s. And again, you probably won’t know why.

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Increase awareness to increase decision quality

But if you pay attention to such minute environmental influences, so tiny that they seem inconsequential, you are much more likely to trace your thought process and avoid the pitfalls in decision quality that come from a simple lack of awareness. Birnbaum was lucky; her sense of smell returned. But she had changed: she no longer took it for granted and learned to pay attention to the most subtle of aromatic changes in her surroundings. And who knows. Perhaps her decisions, too, improved as a result.

I don’t propose that, like Birnbaum, we travel to Grasse to learn to differentiate every component smell of our environments, but I do suggest that we learn to pay better attention to our bodies and to the influences that act on them constantly, and often, quite subtly. Paying attention is the first step toward making the right choices – and avoiding the wrong ones.


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