Are you forgetting to do things that should be no-brainers?
Typically, these are not “senior moments,” but involve information overload, time stress or other forms of distraction.
A research article in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science reviews memory lapses, technically called a failure of prospective memory, and provides some suggestions to help us minimize future events.
In the study, R. Key Dismukes, Ph.D., a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, looks at the rapidly growing field of research on prospective memory.
A defining feature of the research is the manner in which characteristics of everyday tasks interact with normal cognitive processes to produce memory failures. Failures of prospective memory typically occur when we form an intention to do something later, become engaged with various other tasks, and lose focus on the thing we originally intended to do.
Despite the name, prospective memory actually depends on several cognitive processes, including planning, attention, and task management. Many examples of prospective memory involve intending to do something at a particular time, such as going to a doctor’s appointment, or on a particular occasion, such as congratulating a friend the next time you see her.
In reality, our typical home or work day involves the repetition of tasks, time after time. And when it comes to these kinds of habitual tasks, our intentions may not be explicit.
We usually don’t, for example, form an explicit intention to insert the key in the ignition every time we drive a car — the intention is implicit in our habitual routine of driving.
In previous research, Dismukes and colleagues identified several types of situations that can lead to prospective memory failures. They found that interruptions and disruptions to habitual processes, which are irritating enough in everyday life, can be fatal in some occupational settings.
In fact, several airline catastrophes have occurred because pilots were interrupted while performing critical preflight tasks — after the interruption was over, the pilots skipped to the next task, not realizing that the interrupted tasks hadn’t been finished.
Multitasking is also a major cause of prospective memory failures. While many have adapted to multitasking fairly well, research has shown that problems arise when we become too focused on the task we are performing — a situation call cognitive tunneling — forgetting to switch our attention back to the other tasks at hand.
Researchers recommend the use of specific memory strategies to combat prospective memory failures and their potentially disastrous consequences.
For example, professionals in aviation and medicine now rely on specific memory tools, including checklists. Having specific goals or intentions (often in a written format) that identifies when and where a specific task will be carried out, can also help guard against such failures in everyday life.
Dismukes points out that having this kind of concrete plan has been shown to improve prospective memory performance by as much as two to four times in tasks such as exercising, medication adherence, breast self-examination, and homework completion.
Along with checklists and implementation intentions, Dismukes and others have highlighted several other measures that can help to remember and carry out intended actions:
- Use external memory aids such as the alerting calendar on cell phones;
- Avoid multitasking when one of your tasks is critical;
- Carry out crucial tasks now instead of putting them off until later;
- Create reminder cues that stand out and put them in a difficult-to-miss spot;
- Link the target task to a habit that you have already established.
“Rather than blaming individuals for inadvertent lapses in prospective memory, organizations can improve safety by supporting the use of these measures,” argues Dismukes.
He suggests that scientists should combine laboratory research with observations of human performance in real-world settings to better understand how prospective memory works and to develop practical strategies to avoid lapses