In the battle for brand recognition, can your customers draw your brand's logo from memory? It's probably unlikely: A recent UCLA study found that most people can't recall the details of the logo belonging to one of the biggest and most ubiquitous brands in the world.

In the study, UCLA professor Alan Castel and colleagues Adam Blake and Meenely Nazarian asked more than 100 students to draw the Apple logo from memory. The result? While most of the students were confident they could do it--the majority of them were iPhone and Apple computer users--only one person drew it correctly. Only seven people drew the Apple logo with three or fewer errors.

When the subjects were asked to select the correct logo from a lineup of seven altered logos, only 47 percent picked the correct one. Castel, in an interview with Harvard Business Review, says a big part of the phenomenon is "attentional saturation."

"It would be overwhelming and maladaptive to mentally record everything we see. So subconsciously we let some things fall away," he tells HBR. 

This type of study isn't new. In 1979, psychologists Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Adams conducted the penny test, where people were shown several pictures of a penny with Lincoln's bust and other features in various positions, and asked to select the correct one. Most people couldn't do it. This is because we do not remember exact details of objects we see every day. In fact, our memories are selective, malleable, and influenced by experiences.

"Perhaps because it's so ubiquitous and basic, our study subjects clearly hadn't committed its details to memory," Castel says of the Apple logo test. "We all know it looks like the fruit, but most of us don't pay attention to the bite or the leaf. And that's natural. We don't burden ourselves with information we don't think we'll need to use."

Going deeper

It makes perfect sense that the brain doesn't store every detail of every object, sound, and experience. We would be overwhelmed by information if we did so. In the two studies led by Castel, most were Mac users. Most of them believed they'd be successful at the task, an example of what psychologists call "the availability heuristic"--"I've seen this many times, so I should remember it," Castel says.

In another study, Castel asked 54 people who worked in the same office if they could recall where the nearest fire extinguisher was in their office. Even though the fire extinguisher is bright red and they passed it every day, only 13 of the participants knew the location. In the follow-up to this study, every single person could say exactly where the fire extinguisher was located. He says failure is the best teacher for this type of metacognition, or knowing what you don't know.

"Maybe because we don't think we'll ever have to put out a fire at work, we filter the information out," Castel says. "Another explanation is what psychologists call inattentional amnesia--where people are too preoccupied with other tasks to notice something else, as in the famous study where subjects counting basketball passes miss a man in a gorilla suit walking through the scene."

The gist

Another psychological phenomenon, one that helps humans learn to recognize similar objects with different details, is called gist memory. Instead of getting hung up on the details, our brain connects similarities and commonalities, or the gist of something. For example, a metal machine with a steering wheel and four tires, regardless of color or differences in shape or model, is a car. Our brain will also fill in things we think should be there.

"Many students assumed that if they were drawing a leaf [as part of the Apple logo], they should also draw a stem. In my own mind, the bite had teeth marks because no real bite is smooth," Castel says. "So our memories are contaminated by all the knowledge we've accumulated."

The older people get, Castel says, the more people rely on gist memory. In certain situations, gist memory can be dangerous. Eyewitness testimony in criminal cases has been found to be unreliable because factors of stress and emotions can cause retrograde amnesia. The details of events can disappear and we can be influenced to remember differently.

In high-stakes situations, like putting the correct person in prison for a violent offense, people need to be aware of the psychological phenomena that hijack memory.

"Sometimes the information on the periphery is what leads us to the greatest insights, so we might want to fight our tendency to filter, our inattention, and our gist memory," he says.

Don't worry, memory loss is good for you

Not remembering a brand logo is no big deal. Our brain needs to forget small things like this to make room for more important information. The biggest takeaway, Castel says, is awareness of these quirks. If you're aware of your own metacognition, you can improve it by paying attention to things you know you don't remember.