People Remember What They Feel

Last week, someone shared a very powerful quote with me. It was attributed to Maya Angelou, American author and poet.

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Although deceptively simple, Angelou’s words have the ring of truth about them. As a quick test, think about these questions: What do you find when you flip through your mental scrapbook of memories? Who and what do you remember in your life?

Wikimedia Creative Commons, ManosHacker

Then shift the lens a bit and consider: Who and what do you remember from work?

If you’re like most people, you remember the workplace triumphs and the tragedies, the friends and the foes, but not much about the day-to-day details of the job.

  • While the everyday activities of a typical workday slide into oblivion once we’ve moved on, the day a manager humiliates us in front of our peers is indelibly etched in our minds.
  • The rush of satisfaction when we’re recognized by our boss and peers for a major accomplishment stays with us and builds confidence.
  • The feelings of insignificance from being treated like a “cog in the machine” are easily recalled, long after we’ve made a change.
  • The love and gratitude we feel when co-workers step up to help during a personal crisis still warms us years later.

These are the random things, good and bad, that we remember from our countless hours spent at work. The daily interactions and activities that make up most of our working life, on the other hand, fade and become wallpaper, pervasive but not memorable.

Yes, it certainly seems as if emotion helps us remember—but is it true, and if so, why is it true?

Does Emotion Boost Memory?

According to researchers, Kensinger[1] and Schacter[2],

“…emotional information is remembered better than non-emotional information, not because of the engagement of processes unique to memory for emotional information, but rather because of limbic modulation of the same processes that typically are recruited to remember non-emotional information.”

In other words, different parts of the brain are activated when strong emotions are associated with a memory, causing both the memory itself and the related emotions to be retained longer and in greater detail than other memories.

These findings have been echoed across multiple studies, including those conducted by Duke University's Florin Dolcos, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Fiona Kumfor, Research Officer at Neuroscience Research in Australia.

As Kumfor describes it, there is considerable evidence to show that “all memories aren’t created equal. Whether you remember an event the next day, week or year, depends on a number of factors, the most important one of which is the emotion associated with it.”

So emotion doesn’t just seem to improve memory, it actually does. When an activity or experience evokes strong positive or negative emotions in us, we remember it. Since it has greater emotional weight, that memory will also come back to us more readily and may even be “triggered” by certain sights, sounds or circumstances in future.

Emotion, Memory and HR

Yes. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most profound: “…people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What does this simple truth mean for HR and anyone responsible for managing people? There are a number of obvious implications, from the ability to improve knowledge retention by evoking an emotional response to training (ideally laughter and excitement and not pain!), to the impact of emotion on employee engagement and performance.

Perhaps even more important than the practical possibilities this insight offers to HR professionals and managers is another, much more significant, inference which can be drawn: emotional memory is why HR matters.

The value of HR, when it’s done right, lies in our ability to forge a connection between what the company wants to accomplish strategically, and how employees feel about their work, the company, each other and their leadership. Because how they feel about these things will directly impact what they remember, how they perform and whether they engage. As much as we strive to bring rigor and metrics to the HR function, it’s important to remember that there is power in understanding people and oceans of untapped potential in elevating how they feel.


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[1] Department of Psychology, Boston College, McGuinn Hall, Chenstnut Hill, MA 02467, USA

[2] Department of Psychology, Harvard University and the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Image by ManosHacker: Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijack from optical stimulus. Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Creative Commons, Wikimedia.

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