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.

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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…