At a recent fire-safety meeting, Dr. Keith Holyoak, an indisputably brilliant psychologist, was stumped. A safety inspector asked if he knew the location of the fire extinguisher nearest to his office. When the meeting ended, he was curious, so he checked.
It wasn't hard to find. It is about 8 inches from his office door. Where he has worked for 25 years.
A scientific investigation followed. Alan Castel, Mike Vendetti, and Keith Holyoak, asked participants to recall the location of various items in Franz hall at UCLA. This is what they found:
- 91% correct: Floor plan map
- 80% correct: Clock
- 96% correct: Drinking fountain
- 26% correct: Fire alarm
- 24% correct: Fire extinguisher
It seems that people know where to find things they've used before (the first 3 items) but not the things they haven't (the last 2 items). And it's probably a problem of attention, not memory. People didn't know the location and then forget--they never noticed in the first place.