The Verbatim Effect: Why People Remember Gist Better than Details

The Verbatim Effect

 

The verbatim effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember the gist of information, which is its general meaning, better than they remember its exact form, which is the way the information was presented and the minor details that it involved.

For example, when people read a long text, they’re more likely to remember its core message, than they are to remember how exactly it was phrased.

Accounting for the verbatim effect can be highly beneficial in a variety of contexts. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the verbatim effect and about why we experience it, and see how you can take advantage of it as effectively as possible.

 

Examples of the verbatim effect

A notable example of the verbatim effect is that, when people are asked to recall statements that they read, they tend to remember the main meaning of those statements (i.e. their gist) better than they remember the exact way those statements were phrased. For instance, consider the following sentence:

“Alice and Bob walked at a leisurely pace around the large, sprawling market, gazing at the various stalls with visible excitement in their eyes.”

Someone who is asked to reproduce this statement after reading it only once, is likely to produce something along the following, which does contain the gist of the statement, but not all of its minor details:

“Alice and Bob walked around the market, gazing at the stalls in excitement.”

Another example of the verbatim effect is that if you show people a graph containing a lot of information, they are more likely to remember the general concept that the graph was meant to convey, rather than its exact details. This is illustrated in the following example:

 

An example of how the verbatim effect affects people. When people are shown a detailed graph, they are likely to remember only the main point that it illustrates, while forgetting the small details that it contains.

The verbatim effect is often mentioned in the context of marketing. For example, this effect is frequently used to explain and highlight the fact that when people are shown information about a certain service or product, they’re more likely to remember the general gist of the information that they were shown, rather than its exact details. This means, for instance, that when it comes to price, people are generally more likely to remember whether they felt that a certain product was cheap or expensive, or approximately how much it cost, than they are to remember its exact price.

 

Why people experience the verbatim effect

In general, research on the topic suggests that people use two separate but interrelated memory processes:

  • Gist memory, which focuses on the essential meaning of information.
  • Verbatim memory, which focuses on the surface form of information.

These two types of memory have separate encoding and retrieval processes, and accordingly, the main reason why people experience the verbatim effect is that in general, gist memory is encoded more effectively than verbatim memory.

This could be attributed to the fact that, in general, gist information represents both the most important as well as the least detailed part of the information that people are shown, which makes it both more desirable as well as easier to remember. This is evident, for example, in the fact that, when people recall information, they tend to display an automatic preference for the representation of that information that is both the most meaningful and also the least detailed, which means that they prefer the representation that contains primarily gist information.

 

Variability in the influence of the verbatim effect

It’s important to note that the verbatim effect isn’t guaranteed to occur in all situations, and whether or not it affects people, as well the degree to which it affects them, varies based on a number of factors. Such factors include, for example, an individual’s preferences, their innate abilities, and their prior experience, as well as the type of material in question, and the goal that the individual has when interacting with that material.

This means that, despite the general tendency to remember gist information better, there are also situations where people will be better at memorizing the form of information better than they will its meaning.

This might happen, for example, if someone is asked to memorize information that they don’t fully understand, such as a text in a foreign language, in which case they might be able to repeat it verbatim, but won’t be able to remember what it actually means. This is evident, for instance, in the fact that the encoding of verbatim linguistic information is similar, from a cognitive perspective, to the encoding of meaningless strings of words.

 

How to account for the verbatim effect

Accounting for how the verbatim effect influences you

There are two main ways in which you can benefit from accounting for how the verbatim effect influences your own memory and thinking.

First, accounting for the verbatim effect can help you make more accurate predictions regarding what sort of information you’re likely to remember, and to act accordingly. For example, if you’re listening to a presentation, this could prompt you to write down notes regarding small but important details that you’re likely to forget later.

In addition, accounting for the verbatim effect can also help you learn information more effectively. Specifically, research on the topic suggests that adopting a gist strategy, where you focus on memorizing the gist of information, can lead to better outcomes than adopting a rote strategy, where you focus on memorizing the information by repeating its form in a verbatim manner.

Note: the distinction between a gist strategy and a rote strategy is similar in some ways to the distinction between knowledge-telling and knowledge-building, which is another concept that you can use in order to facilitate your learning.

 

Accounting for how the verbatim effect influences others

There are several ways in which you can benefit from accounting for how the verbatim effect influences other people’s memory and thinking.

First, accounting for the verbatim effect can help you present information in a way that ensures that you get your main point across. For example, if you’re preparing a presentation, this can prompt you to identify minor, unimportant details that people are likely to forget, and to remove them from the presentation in order to make it more focused on your key message.

Similarly, accounting for the verbatim effect can prompt you to craft your presentation in a way that encourages people to focus on the gist of what you’re trying to say, rather than on the secondary details. This can be done either implicitly, by highlighting the gist of the message or repeating it multiple times, or it can be done explicitly, by telling people that you want them to focus on the gist of your message, rather than on the minor details.

In addition, accounting for the verbatim effect can help you present information in a way that ensures that people remember small but important details. For example, if you’re giving a lecture, and mention a certain detail that appears minor but that is crucial for listeners to remember, you can emphasize it in order to ensure that people will keep it in mind despite the fact that it’s not a part of the gist of what you’re presenting.

Similarly, you might do the same in situations where you want to ensure that people will remember the exact form of what you’re presenting them. This can happen, for instance, if it’s crucial for people to remember the exact phrasing of a certain definition, in order to avoid common misunderstandings.

You can accomplish this by using similar techniques that you would use to emphasize gist information, such as by using repetition or by calling attention to the secondary information explicitly. Furthermore, you can also use various other techniques, such as using rhyming in order to help people memorize minor but important details in the information that you’re presenting.

Finally, accounting for the verbatim effect can also help you become more efficient, by helping you prioritize your work. For example, if getting a certain minor detail for a presentation will require a lot of work, you might decide to forego it if it’s not crucial for the gist of the presentation, since people are unlikely to remember it anyway.

 

Caveats about accounting for the verbatim effect

When accounting for the verbatim effect, it’s important to keep in mind that there is variability with regard to its influence. Essentially, this means that the verbatim effect will influence different people in different ways in different situations. For example, if you give a lecture to students, some might remember almost nothing other than gist information, while others will be easily capable of remembering relatively large amounts of verbatim information too.

Nevertheless, despite this variability, it’s generally reasonable to expect that, in most cases, people will have an easier time remembering the gist of information, rather than its exact form.

In addition, when it comes to choosing how much to focus on small details when presenting information, the level of details that you should include depends on the context and on the target audience. For example, if you’re an academic, you will generally choose to include a more detailed analysis when presenting your findings to other academics in your field, compared to when you’re presenting that analysis to laypeople with no experience in your field.

Nevertheless, in both cases, it’s generally better to start with a simpler explanation that people can follow, and then add more details later if necessary, than it is to start with too many details from the start and lose the audience’s attention.

Finally, remember that in many cases, no one will care about the information that you’re presenting as much as you will. This means that, even if certain minor details seem crucial to you, in many situations no one will remember them or care if you omit them.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The verbatim effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember the gist of information, which is its general meaning, better than they remember its exact form, which is the way the information was presented and the minor details that it involved.
  • For example, when people read a long text, they’re more likely to remember its core message, than they are to remember how exactly it was phrased.
  • People experience the verbatim effect because gist memory, which focuses on the main meaning of information, is generally encoded more effectively than verbatim memory, which focuses on the surface form of information, and because people generally prefer to remember information in a way that is as meaningful and as least detailed as possible.
  • Accounting for how the verbatim effect influences you can help you accurately predict what kind of information you’re likely to remember, and can help you understand and improve the way in which you learn information.
  • Accounting for how the verbatim effect influences others can help you predict what kind of information they’re likely to remember, which can help you improve the way you present information.