Cookies, Milk, and Action Slips: A Cautionary Tale

What happens when your central executive is on autopilot

Posted May 29, 2014

This is a guest post by David Rosas, Williams College Class of 2016. 

Five years old. My brother, four years my senior, and I exchange a befuddled glance in the back seat of our mom's maroon Nissan Maxima as we cruise right by Williams Elementary school. “I guess we aren't going to school today!” my brother exclaims. My mom, realizing that she started driving to work before dropping us off, turned around and brought us to class. What just happened?

Ignoring the emotional trauma of my mom forgetting that my brother and I existed, I would have just assumed we were being too quiet in the back seat (not likely) and she thought she had already dropped us off. The psychological phenomenon at play here is called an action slip which is a slightly more scientific way of saying 'brain fart'. Regardless, the brain does something it is not supposed to which can lead to some anecdotal stories.

An action slip is responding to the ticket taker's scripted “Enjoy your movie” at the theater with “you too!”. It is saying “good” in passing when the question is “where you headed?” It is trying to use your school ID card to swipe into your hotel room in Arizona over spring break and being frustrated that it does not work for an embarrassingly long time. What is it that happens? Why does it happen? And will it always be as innocuous as forgetting to drop the kids off as school?

Action slips are, put simply, “doing something different from what you intend” (Reisberg, 510). They are a failure of the central executive, the areas of the brain that maintain and allocate attention, plan cognitive tasks, and initiate the decision process. Clearly my mom originally intended to drop us off at school, but the central executive tends to take shortcuts to make its job easier.

Besides the occasional embarrassment, are they all that harmful? Well, imagine this scenario: You are driving on the highway to the store to pick up milk for you cookies when you suddenly realize that you are actually driving the wrong direction because that store shut down last week. No problem. Just turn around, and go buy milk from the other store, right? Wrong! It is now later than the other store is open. You have failed and must return home to eat your dry, tasteless cookies with what? That's right: water. Cookies and water?!? What self-respecting cookie eater would settle for water when in your heart of hearts you know only milk will quench the thirst you have.

But wait! It turns out that your roommate still has some milk left. Sure the expiration date just passed, but of course, to respect for the dynamic duo that is cookies and milk, you drink it. And now, you wait. And worry. Every rumble of your stomach scares you for what may happen next. ‘What if' is enough to paralyze the strongest stomachs among us. And sleep? Forget about it.

What is the moral of this tragic tale? Make the extra effort and take the extra time to focus your attention on what you are doing, and perhaps be a little more intentional with your actions. Who knows? It may save your kids emotional trauma of being forgotten, your stomach and heart the turmoil of food-induced purgatory, and at the very least show that you are actually listening to the person who most people ignore. Our attention is like a spotlight. It is selective and limited. But giving it to someone can mean so much more than we tend to think. So, please, for the betterment of our human condition, don't let your actions slip from you.

(Please note that although this is a humorous post, there is nothing funny about some action slips that have nightmarish consequences.)


Reisberg, Daniel. (2011). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. W.W. Norton & Company.

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