Memory’s a funny old thing. Try the following test.

First, get a piece of paper and a pen. Next, read the words below aloud once:

bed / rest / awake / tired / dream / wake / snooze / blanket / doze / slumber / snore / nap / peace / yawn / drowsy

Now turn away from your screen and write down all the words you remember.

According to cognitive psychology, people tend to recall a word that is related to all the other words but absent from the list.

In this case, that word is sleep.

Did you write it down?

About half of those who take the test say afterwards that they’re sure they remember seeing the missing word (sleep) – and yet this is a false memory, a recollection of something that didn’t happen.

Academics refer to this as the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm, and it’s surprisingly common.

Take these famous movie quotes:

Most of us will remember at least one of them – or think we do. But, in fact, none is real, despite all having a firm foothold in popular memory.

This phenomenon of collective misremembering has been christened the ‘Mandela Effect’, named after the apparently large number of people who say they have a clear recollection of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. (Which, of course, he didn’t. But you knew that, right?)

You don’t have to look far to see examples of the Mandela Effect playing out in the world of business. Every organisation, it seems, has its folk myths about who its customers are, what they want, what they think of the brand, and so on.

Ask any in-house insight team and they’ll tell you that displacing false beliefs of this kind is one of their toughest challenges. Decision makers will often find it easier to fall back on cherished myths about their customers than to engage with the complex reality of what their research is actually saying to them.

The solution?

Successful businesses tend to maintain a clear focus on the two Cs of customer insight: Capability and Culture. Which is to say, they combine a strong, empowered insight capability with an organisation-wide culture of customer centricity.

Consumer closeness programmes are often at the heart of this cultural shift. The more that colleagues across an organisation get to actually experience the insight, not just hear about it – for instance, by interacting with real-life customers – the more likely they are to internalise and act on the learnings.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the effort pays back. Studies of business effectiveness have consistently shown that organisations built around customer insight outperform their market peers.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Empathy is the ultimate form of insight”. Or have I misremembered that…?