Remembering to Do Things

The technical term for remembering to do things is prospective memory. A great deal of research has been done on prospective memory, but practically all of it has ignored transactive memory. Transactive memory is an external support like writing it down or entering it into computer or some type of smart device. It might seem like these researchers are overlooking the obvious. Perhaps they are, but they are doing so for their own theoretical purposes.

Writing it down might seem like the obvious answer. Although it might appear to be the obvious answer, it is flawed. One study showed that when daily planners were used, they were overlooked 25% of the time. So external aids can work, but only if you remember to consult them. Electronic devices where alarms could be set as reminders of where you should be at which time can remedy this problem. Such warnings are commonplace on computers. The problem here is that you need either be at your computing device or carrying it with you for the alarm to be effective.

Mnemonic techniques are also available. The techniques discussed in the blog posts “The Method of Loci” and “The One Bun Rhyme Mnemonic” can be used to make ordered lists of things to do throughout the day or week. Similarly Pierre Herigone’s technique (presented in the blog post, “Remembering Numbers”) for recoding numbers as sounds so that they can be converted into words and images can be used. Specific use of Herigone’s technique for remembering the times of appointments is discussed in the blog post “Remembering Historical Dates and Appointments.”

Perhaps the best method is to use a combination of mnemonic techniques and transactive memory tools. They each support the other. External supports compensate for memory failures. Mnemonic techniques compensate for the absence of technology. Both techniques require attention and most memory failures are, at bottom failures to employ enough of the right kind of attention.

Perhaps the most alarming failures of prospective memory are those that result in leaving children unattended in vehicles. The response to these cases typically is what terrible parents these people are. But the vast majority are good parents who suffered from prospective memory failures. This story has repeated itself numerous times. A mother, or father, goes to the day care center to pick up the child. Unfortunately, the child cannot be picked up because she is already dead in the back of the vehicle, the victim of a prospective memory failure (to drop off the child in the morning).

The number of these failures has increased drastically since the child seat laws required that the seat be in the back seat (due to the danger of the airbag injuring the child if it was in the front seat). The fundamental problem is out of sight, out of mind. Here an external aid, such as a doll place in the front seat or a ribbon tied to the steering wheel can reduce the number of these prospective memory failures.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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2 Responses to “Remembering to Do Things”

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