We all tend to focus on the big moments in our lives; holidays, weddings, anniversaries, major career milestones, vacations. One’s life is largely defined by moments and memories like these, but those times only make up a small fraction of each person’s journey. Much of our lives are spent grocery shopping, paying bills, brushing our teeth, taking out the garbage, and any number of other mundane, everyday tasks.
These types of chores are performed so regularly that people often end up forming false memories of accomplishing mundane tasks they intended to get done. It’s happened to everyone from time to time. You thought for sure you answered that email the other night, but when you checked your account the next day the message was never sent.
A new study from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigated the phenomenon of misremembering everyday chores and found that this near-universal flaw in human memory is caused by a conflation of intention and action.
More specifically, the research team says that when unexciting tasks are continually performed over and over, and always occur within the same context or at the same time, it makes it very easy for our minds to associate intention with action.
For example, every other night Joe takes his garbage out to the trash can at 6 o’clock and then eats dinner. Well, last Wednesday, even though Joe had every intention of taking his trash out he got caught up on the phone with an old friend, ended up chatting until 7 o’clock, and was starving by the time he hung up. Naturally, Joe went straight for his dinner after hanging up the phone, and then just went on with his usual nightly routine.
Joe forgot to take his trash out, but his original intention to do so caused his mind to conflate that intention with action. Consequently, Joe’s mind formed a false memory of taking out the trash Wednesday night. Come Thursday morning, Joe is puzzled to find his trash can overflowing.
“Intentions and making plans typically improve task execution. We need them to function in society, to realize our goals and to get along with others,” explains Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology and marketing at Illinois and the director of the Social Action Lab, in a release. “But when we form an intention in the moment such as ‘I’m going to sign that form now,’ and it’s an activity we routinely perform, we want to complete the task when we form the intention. Otherwise, we don’t actually sign the form. And the reason why is because the thought of wanting to sign the form can be misremembered as actually having signed it, in which case we’d be better off not having formed the intention to sign the form in the first place.”
The research team conducted five experiments to come to these findings.
“Our aim was to develop a lab-analog procedure entailing relatively simple, repetitive and similar behavioral decisions to create the conditions hypothesized to produce high levels of error,” Professor Albarracin says.
Across all of those experiments, a group of participants was asked to take on the role of a hiring manager. Each participant examined a group of job candidates and then either “took action” to hire the candidates, merely formed an intention to hire the candidates at a later date, or decided not to hire any of them at all.
After an undisclosed delay, participants were then asked to recall if they had actually hired each candidate, or just intended to do so later on.
“The methodology was carefully crafted to produce the necessary high level of errors we were studying, to keep irrelevant characteristics constant across conditions, and to systematically manipulate enactment versus intention,” Professor Albarracin comments. “If intentions play a causal role in producing misreports of behavior, misreports should be more common in the intention than the control condition.”
To varying degrees, all five experiments produced similar results. In short, the participants had a hard time remembering in certain cases if they actually hired, or only intended to hire, some candidates.
These findings, while certainly relevant to everyone’s home and personal life, also have pretty major implications within a professional setting. For example, imagine a car mechanic misremembers checking a car’s oil. Such mental lapses can prove to be much more devastating than forgetting to brush one’s teeth every so often.
So, what’s the best way to avoid these memory mistakes? There’s no surefire way, unfortunately, but following through on an intention as soon as it comes to mind is a good way to mitigate the chances of misremembering daily chores.
The full study can be found here, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.