Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Hiding Things From Myself: Lost Car Keys and Misplaced Tickets

Hiding Things From Myself: Lost Car Keys and Misplaced Tickets

My car keys have gone into hiding again. I'll be searching in all the usual places and probably in some unusual ones as well.

In offering an explanation of everyday errors, Freud suggested that all errors reflect a motivated cause. In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he argued that "We never lose what we really want." For example, I may have misplaced my car keys for a variety of reasons - not wanting to go to the place I'm supposed to be, disliking my car, disliking something associated with my car, or wanting to avoid the people I'm supposed to meet. In addition, the car keys may represent some other thing or memory I am trying to avoid or hide. Freudian explanations are fun, entertaining, and make for good literature. For every mistake I make, there is some underlying, motivated reason. The motivated reason is unconscious and thus I don't have direct access to my own motivations.

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Of course, from a Freudian perspective, I should hardly ever be able to find my car keys. Frequently I must go places about which I'm ambivalent or where I don't really want to go. However, the car keys are rarely lost in our household. In addition, while Freud was adept in offering entertaining narratives explaining behaviors, he wasn't very proficient at predicting behaviors or suggesting ways to avoid problems - such as how to not lose my car keys.

Cognitive Psychology, in contrast, offers two different reasons for why items get lost sometimes. First, we don't always pay much attention to what we are doing. When I walk into the house, I may be thinking deeply about some family or work issue. Other times, I immediately become distracted by something happening in the house. I may need to help prepare dinner, take care of the dogs, answer the ringing phone, or deal with some other exciting aspect of everyday life. When I am distracted, I may not notice where I drop the car keys or remember that I left them in my coat pocket.

In other cases, we may actually hide things from ourselves. Gene Winograd and Robert Soloway studied this problem. Sometimes people put things in interesting places. Typically, people do this with less frequently used items - like passports and concert tickets. In other cases, they put things away to hide the things from other people - such as drug paraphernalia or porn. Winograd and Soloway found that people put things in unusual places thinking the places will be memorable. Unfortunately, while the places may be memorable, those spots do not become memorable locations for passports or porn. Instead, it is easier to remember where things are when they are in obvious rather than unusual locations. The passport will be easier to find in the file with legal documents than in the pocket of your travel jacket. When we put things in special places, we actually hide those things from our future selves.

The power of the cognitive explanations is that they provide advice for not losing things. First, develop habits. Create a place to put the car keys. Put the keys there as soon as you return home, every time you come home. Soon this will become a habit. The nice thing about habits is that we can perform them without much thought. Thus, even when distracted, I empty my pockets into the same drawer every time I come home. Having that drawer near the door has made it easy to rely on my habits. Even when I don't remember emptying my pockets, the car keys have still managed to find their way into that drawer. Habits can be helpful.

Second, put things in obvious places. Store together the things that go together. Don't put things in special places. When you put something in a special place, you probably have to work to think of such an interesting place. This means you will have to work to find that item when you need it again. You'll be looking in the obvious places and you'll experience difficulty recreating the special idea you had when you put the item away.

Of course, in some cases Freud may be right. There may be a motivated reason why you can't find your car keys. You don't want to go to lunch with your mom, for example. I prefer simpler explanations. You were distracted, didn't rely on a habit, and were unaware of setting the car keys down. In other cases, by finding a special place to put something, you may have inadvertently hidden the item from yourself.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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