“We tend to forget things when we’re out of context.”

Do you recognize the following situation? You enter your basement, but instantly forget why you went there. You walk back, and as soon as you enter the kitchen you go “Oh, I remember, I went to get the juicer!” That’s cue dependent forgetting and remembering; it is our tendency to forget things which are out of context, and to recall information more easily when the original contextual cues are present (the cues that were also present when we learned it).

context dependent memoryTake for example retargeting: someone visited your website and looked at a product. Now you recognize this person elsewhere on the web and you promote the same product again in a banner. Since the person is on a totally different website, a lot of the cues are gone. Cue dependent forgetting tells us that it helps to include original elements of your site in the banner (colors, logo’s, icons, etc). You might even show the banner that is already on your site, so that people will recognize the banner easily somewhere else.

Using the same contextual cues (coloring, content, pictures, etc.) across media will facilitate the recall of your brand and products more easily and thus increase the likelihood that people will at least browse your product item catalogue.

Scientific research example:

Imagine you’re required to remember a list of 10 words while sitting next to a swimming pool. Meanwhile I try to remember the same list of words, but being a scuba diver, I try doing this on the bottom of the pool.

Subsequently, we’re asked to recall the list of 10 words. Now, who’s best at remembering the list? As early as 1975, Godden & Baddeley discovered that this depends on where we’re asked to remember the list. All other things equal, remember better when the recall session occurs under water, and you’ll remember better when asked ‘on land’. So changing the cues and context between encoding and retrieval reduces our ability to recall.
context dependent memory2

Moreover, all sorts of contextual cues influence our memory, such as body position or emotional states. The latter we call “State-dependent memory”. It tells us for example that if I was drunk while learning, I’d better be similarly inebriated when we try to recall what you learned, since that will make me recall a comparable amount to you (who was hopefully sober on both occasions).

Online Persuasion tips:


  • In general: Try to create a consistent context in all your online presence with the same contextual cues (from SEO, SEA, display, sites, to apps and social media, etc.).
  • When you want a visitor to remember you or your offer at some point, make sure you prime him with contextual cues that will be present in the situation where you want him to memorize you.
  • When you have a recurring visitor, use cues from his previous visit to make him remember that visit.

And apart from contextual cues, do the same for other types of cues like bodily positions, emotional states etc.

Further reading on context dependent memory: