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How to Avoid Your Five Most Common Memory Errors

Research-based strategies to stop making mistakes that can ruin your day

Forgetting important dates, names, facts, or things you need to do can be frustrating and potentially disastrous, depending on the seriousness of the situation. For example, it’s annoying to forget to bring your lunch to work, but it can be dangerous to forget to turn off the stove before leaving the house.

The following are top 5 memory mistakes—and strategies you can use to overcome them. It may take a little effort, but the results can have an immediate payoff by improving your mental efficiency and preventing disaster for yourself and others.

1. Committing unconscious transference.

No, we're not talking about psychoanalysis now. The term unconscious transference pops up in research on false memory effect. Unconscious transference in memory occurs when an eyewitness “transfers” to person Y and the actions carried out in Y’s vicinity by person X. Imagine that you saw two people standing on a street corner. One takes out a can of spray paint and proceeds to deface the side of a building. If someone later asks you to identify the person responsible for the graffiti, the chances are good that you’ll lay the blame on person Y.

Florida Atlantic University psychologist Alan Kersten and his research team, in a 2013 publication, recently demonstrated this effect by having participants state whether or not a second person committed the actions carried out by a first person. The unconscious transference effect showed up loud and clear, but was particularly pronounced in older adults. The familiarity of seeing the second person present at the event seems to be enough to bias our recollection of their respective roles, a tendency that may be greater in people who also show other memory errors.

How does unconscious transference apply to you? Most likely, you won’t witness many criminal activities in your life, or at least let’s hope you don’t. Instead, the common tendency to transfer recognition from one person to another is more likely to affect your emotional reactions to people as they perform everyday activities in ordinary situations (which was the premise of the Kersten et al. study). Knowing that you might mentally blame an innocent person for something he or she didn’t do should make you better able to nip unconscious transference in the bud. Before you criticize a perfectly reasonable, friendly, and well-meaning person by your faulty associations of that person with actions that you find annoying or problematic, ask yourself whether you’re allowing recall of the other people in the situation to taint your judgment.

2. Falling prey to commission errors (thinking you've done something you didn't).

Admit it: You meant to pay a bill that arrived in your email, thought you did, and then were stunned when you got an overdue notice. Sure, you opened the email; sure, you clicked on the link; and sure, you checked over the amount to make sure it was correct. Then something went awry. You got a text from a friend who needed an immediate answer to a question, or you took a bathroom break, or you got another email to answer that looked more interesting than paying your bill. And you never did pay that bill. This is an example of a commission error, meaning that you remembered you needed to do something, started doing it, and then didn’t complete it. Prospective memory refers to your remembering to do something in the future, either at a specific date and time (remembering a dentist appointment) or in conjunction with another event (buying toothpaste). An omission error in prospective memory means you forget the action entirely. A commission error means you remembered that the action needed to be done, initiated it, and just failed to bring it to completion.

Julie Bugg of Washington University in St. Louis and her team (2013) investigated Implementation Intention (II) encoding on commission errors in prospective memory, comparing older and younger adults. II encoding involves telling yourself, and possibly visualizing, a task you need to do. For example, if your garbage gets picked up on Thursday, you need to remember to take the cans outside on Wednesday night. It’s helpful to provide these mental reminders, but the risk is that you think about getting it done but then never actually do. Bugg and her coauthors found that both younger and older adults had poorer performance when they were told to imagine what they would do in a prospective memory task than when not told to imagine.

It’s good to use imagery and other active encoding methods when you’re trying to strengthen your memory. However, in the case of prospective memory, you need to do so with a built-in warning that imagining something doesn’t mean you actually performed the action. This is where Post-it notes and checklists can be most helpful, but you can also work to build in a good mental reminder that will make sure you finish what start without getting lost along the way.

3. Negative prospective memory (forgetting to not do something).

We’ve just looked at forgetting to do something that you need to do, but what about the opposite case when you are continue to do something you’re supposed to stop? You’ve been going out of your way every day to pick up a friend on the way to the gym or to drop your child off at preschool. Now the friend has an injury and can’t work out, or your child is no long in preschool. However, you still end up going out of your way out of habit. This is a case, then, of negative prospective memory.


You might think it’s easier to remind yourself not to do something that requires extra effort on your part. However, inertia sets in even under those conditions. A habitual behavior becomes well-established and it’s surprisingly hard to turn it off. University of Virginia psychologists Jeffrey Pink and Chad Dodson found that once participants were lulled into making a lab task routine, they were more vulnerable to forgetting not to do it when their attention was experimentally divided. In the divided attention task, participants had to complete a decision-making task in which they indicated whether words were real words or not; at the same time, they had to shout out “Now” when three consecutive odd digits were played to them at the rate of one every two seconds. If this sounds to you like distracted driving, then you’ve correctly imagined the experimental situation.

Forgetting to forget requires that you have enough attention to spare so that you can literally kick the habit. It’s probably adaptive that we so easily form new habits. However, when situations make those habits either irrelevant or potentially damaging, we need to have enough mental energy left to remember to interrupt the habit chain.

4. Not making mistakes.

You read this memory error correctly as well. Although we tend to try for completely error-free learning, especially the over-achievers in the crowd, it turns out that building a mistake into learning what you’re trying to remember can be beneficial. Canadian psychologists Andreé-Ann Cyr and Nicole Anderson studied the effect of trial-and-error learning on how well older and younger adults remembered lists of words. In the trial-and-error condition, participants were given a category (such as “food”) and prompted to provide two guesses before seeing part of the word they were supposed to remember (such as “ap…”). Inevitably, some of the guesses were incorrect. However, both young and old groups were better able to remember the words that they’d learned through guesswork.

Through trial-and-error learning, which sometimes results in mistakes, you process information more “deeply,” which is to say you give it greater distinctiveness, expend more mental effort, and infuse the information with greater meaning. As a result, its memory trace will be more enduring than if you passively read the information or even are given information that appears flawlessly organized. The older adults in the Cyr and Anderson study were particularly benefited by error-generation because it forced them to do deeper encoding than they might otherwise engage in on their own.

Errorless learning may not be the best way to guarantee that you’ll remember new information, then. By working your way through the material, even if you’re wrong at first, you’ll truly be able to learn from your own mistakes.

5. Completing difficult tasks mindlessly.

We’ve just seen that making errors while you’re learning new information can work to improve your memory by engaging more of your mental wheels. However, there are cases in which you don’t want to make an error. Perhaps you set your alarm to wake up early in the morning only to oversleep the next day, finding out too late that you’d set it for P.M. instead of A.M. Your mistake was one of failing to take into account the very first step in a process, not the last (as in the prospective memory error case). This is called an “initialization” error. You might also make a fatal error after you’ve completed a task. How many times have you went to copy a document only to find that you left the copy sitting in the machine after you’d “completed” the task? This is called a “post-completion” error.

Human factors researchers Maartje Ament and collaborators (2013) at University College, London, compared the effects of device-oriented with task-oriented instructions on an experimental task in which participants either made or destroyed experimental monsters. In the device-oriented condition, the task was broken down by various widgets that controlled different outcomes. They viewed a screen showing the widgets, not what the widgets actually did. In the task-oriented condition, participants went about the job of either adding or removing body parts, focused not on the device itself but on what they needed to do to achieve a particular subgoal. They saw pictures of the body parts controlled by the devices, not the devices themselves. As the memory load of the task increased, performance deteriorated significantly more in the device-oriented condition. Participants simply lost track of where they were in the sequence of steps they needed to perform.

An analogous situation in real-life to the Frankenstein task occurs when you are programming a DVR. The newer models allow you to choose the program from a guide where you make your decision on the basis of the clear choices the guide presents. In the older models, you needed to go through a series of steps in which you can’t see the program you’re going to record until the very last step and even then, you may fail to push a button to confirm unless you know the button is there.

We don’t always have a choice when it comes to picking the way we complete a complex task involving a series of steps. However, if you know that the steps will not be intuitively obvious, the Ament et al. study suggests that you either write down a checklist of what you need to do separately, or build in yes-no reminders that will force you to make sure you’ve actually gone through the steps in the right order, and through to completion.

Memory is a mental muscle that benefits from exercise. The more you use it, the stronger it will be. These five common memory errors show that, no matter what your age, you can benefit from a few relatively simply tricks to keep that muscle strong and effective.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Ament, M. G. A., Cox, A. L., Blandford, A., & Brumby, D. P. (2013). Making a task difficult: Evidence that device-oriented steps are effortful and error-prone. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 19, 195-204. doi: 10.1037/a0034397

Bugg, J. M., Scullin, M. K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2013). Strengthening encoding via implementation intention formation increases prospective memory commission errors. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 522-527. doi: 10.3758/s13423-013-0378-3

Cyr, A.-A., & Anderson, N. D. (2012). Trial-and-error learning improves source memory among young and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 27, 429-439. doi: 10.1037/a0025115

Kersten, A. W., Earles, J. L., & Upshaw, C. (2013). False recollection of the role played by an actor in an event. Memory & Cognition. doi: 10.3758/s13421-013-0334-5

Pink, J. E., & Dodson, C. S. (2013). Negative prospective memory: Remembering not to perform an action. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20, 184-190. doi: 10.3758/s13423-012-0337-4

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