When we are encoding incoming information, we give priority to certain conditions. We are particularly sensitive to movement, interactivity and distinctiveness.
We are born with a sensitivity to movement. Little kids find it impossible to not look at a new person coming into a room or an object that is moving. As our brain grows, we can override this tendency, at least on some occasions, but it is a pretty ingrained factor.
Magicians use an arc of an arm to distract you from what the other hand is doing. Our brains not only focus on a moving object but defocus on the rest of the scene. It both highlights the movement and suppresses the background.
Similarly, we give more attention to interactive items. We are dawn to conversations, even if we aren’t in them. We love to watch people interact with each other.
It is easier to remember objects if you visualize them interacting. A dog, a phone and a skateboard would be an unusual list of words. But it is easier to remember if you visualize a dog texting on his phone while he skateboards away. It is not the bizarreness that matters, only that they interact. Bizarreness just adds some fun.
Like movement and interactivity, distinctiveness impacts our encoding. When we are encoding, we are aware of any item that is particularly attractive or different.
There are three types of distinctiveness: primary, secondary and emotional.
Primary distinctiveness is a contextual distinctiveness. It is a stimulus that differs from another. It is like the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other.” Primary distinctiveness is an example of Aristotle’s principle of contrast. It is an item that “sticks out.”
A good example of primary distinctiveness is the von Restorff Effect. In a 1933 study, Hedwign von Restorff had people learn lots of lists. He found that if a word in the middle of a list was different from the others, people remembered it better. Surprisingly, they also remembered the whole list better.
A word printed in red stands out from the rest of the words printed in black. The presence of this distinctive word breaks the list into three parts: the unusual item, the items before it and the items after it. People remember the standout item best, followed by the two list segments. Which list segment is remembered best depends on how they are allowed to recall. The front of the list is remembered best in serial recall. The end of the list is remembered best in free recall.
The von Restorff Effect is quite robust. It works with items that are different in size, shape, bold, underlying and almost any dimension to you can think of. As long as it is different from the context, we encode it as distinctive.
Secondary distinctiveness appears in a larger context: your life. It is anything that is incongruent with your past experience. Examples of secondary distinctiveness include your first love, your first day in college, your first job and your first car. It is anything you haven’t experienced before. At one time words like Jacuzzi, khaki, and korn doggz were distinctive. The backwards letter in a name of a toy store is a kind of secondary distinctiveness.
Emotional distinctiveness is a comparison of current emotion to how you usually feel. It includes things that are distinctive when you are in love and when you are laughing. We have a general tendency to remember good and positive things. This Pollyanna effect helps us forget painful and depressing events so we can get on with our lives.
But emotional distinctiveness also includes when we are irritated. We remember fights and breakups because of the emotional side effects. It hurts to be dumped, which makes it memorable.
The irritation doesn’t have to be strong. We don’t like chords that are unresolved or circles that aren’t complete. We remember them because they are distinctive in their emotional impact.
We don’t like interrupted tasks. Bluma Zeigarnik is known for her work on interrupted tasks. The Zeigarnik Effect, named in her honor, shows that people who are interrupted while learning a list remember the words better. The irritation makes that list stand out more.
Gestalt psychologists extended the Zeigarnik effect to include emotional completeness, what they called closure. They note that we like to resolve our interpersonal conflicts.
We remember books when we read them a chapter a day. When you put down a book you are reading, it is easy to remember the plot when you pick it up again. But after you have finished the book, you can’t remember the book that well. When the task is completed we feel satisfied but can’t remember the details as well as we did the day before.
Podcasters and TV news shows tease an upcoming story and the say “right after these messages.” The interruption makes us want to come back and discover the rest. We like completed tasks.
Of course, all of these types of distinction can occur together. Weddings and engagements are good examples. There is the primary distinctiveness of being asked “Will you marry me? in the middle of a conversation. There is the secondary distinctiveness of being your first engagement. There is also an emotional distinctiveness. The happy emotions release hormones that make the stimuli more memorable. Together, the three types of distinctiveness make major events in our lives more memorable.