Imagine how much happier your life would be if you never forgot anything important. As you get older, you may feel that your memory is only getting worse and worse. Fortunately though, based on new memory research, all you need is some simple mental wizardry to get your mind in tune and prevent those minor memory woes.
Let's start with the common situation in which you're stuck trying to recall whether it was Friend A or Friend B who asked you to do a favor. You know the two of them were together when one of them made the request, but no matter what, you can't decide who needs the help. This is a problem known as "unconscious transference," and it's a common memory error. Because A and B were there at the same time, you've mentally transferred the behavior from one to the other and now you don't know who did what. Memory errors due to unconscious transference can lead you to make some even more embarrassing social gaffes such as when you completely forget who invited you to a social event or who told you a secret about someone else.
In a 2013 study, Florida Atlantic University psychologist Alan Kersten and his research team put unconscious transference under the laboratory microscope to find out why we make this common mistake. In the key experimental condition, they asked participants to watch a video in which one person committed an act in the presence of a second person. The unconscious transference effect showed up loud and clear in that participants were tricked into stating that it was the second, not the original, person who performed the behavior. The older adults in the study were particularly prone to the unconscious transference effect. 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.
Knowing that unconscious transference can taint your memory, you can take steps to make sure that you don't fall prey to it. The key is to look carefully at the events and people around you while they're happening. People tend to make memory errors when they don't encode the information correctly in the first place. In a social situation, think about who's doing what and hone in especially hard when one of them is sharing key information with you.
The second problem that can plague your memory is forgetting to complete an action that you start. This is called a commission error in prospective memory. As the term implies, prospective memory refers to your need to recall something you've got to do at a future point. In a commission error of prospective memory, it's not that you've forgotten to start the action entirely, which would constitute an "omission" error. Almost worse, you believe you've paid the bill, finished the laundry, sent the email, only to find that you only got halfway through and the task never got done.
Prospective errors of commission often occur because you get distracted or interrupted in the process of completing the task. The phone rings or you remember something else you were supposed to do, figuring you'll go back to the task you started. Unfortunately, your mind doesn't distinguish between your intention to complete the act and its actual completion.
In order to make sure that you remember to complete what you start, you need to use "implementation intention" encoding in which you tell yourself, and possibly visualize, a task you need to do. If you need to send a friend a birthday card, you need to remember to get it signed and sent in enough time to make sure it reaches its destination. Signing and addressing it and then putting it under a book won't get it to your friend. The trouble is, if you think you sent it, your brain will believe that it was all taken care of.
In a study comparing younger and older adults on these type of errrors, Washington University psychologist Julie Bugg and her coauthors found that both younger and older adults actually had poorer performance when they were told to imagine finishing the task than when they weren't given that instruction. The act of imagining you've done something tricks your brain into thinking that it (you) did.
In general, it's a good idea to form mental images and use and other creative ways to strengthen connections when you're trying to make sure a memory sticks with you. However, in the case of prospective memory, you have to stay away from visualizing the final steps of a tasks performance. Your best bet is to avoid being interrupted if at all possible. Keep your attention focused on the task at hand until you're sure it's done and out of the way. If not, make sure you give yourself a prod, even write yourself a note, to remind you to get back to it later.
Now we'll turn to a memory trick that might not seem at all obvious to you. Making a mistake while you're learning something new can, suprisingly, improve your memory for the new information. Although the perfectionists will undoubtedly find this advice very difficult to follow, as you'll learn, there are benefits to programmed mistakes during learning.
Canadian psychologists Andreé-Ann Cyr and Nicole Anderson had the bright idea that through the process of trial-and-error learning, older adults would actually come out ahead on memory tasks compared to people whose original approach to new material didn't put them through this step. Participants in a trial-and-error memory condition received a category name (such as "vegetables") and were prompted to provide 2 guesses before seeing part of the word they were supposed to remember (such as "ca....."). Inevitably, some of them guessed the wrong word ("cabbage" instead of "carrot"). However, thinking of the words that never made it to the final list helped both young and old groups in the task of remembering the experimental word set.
The reason for the benefit provided by trial-and-error learning is that grappling your way through to a solution forces your mind to work harder than if you simply stare at the correct information and hope it will register. In the word of memory experts, this means that your mind is processing information more "deeply." The more effort you expend, the further you embed it in the rest of your mental storehouse. The older adults in the Cyr and Anderson study were particularly benefited by error-generation. Typically, young adults initiate their own deep processing more readily than do their elders. Forcing your mind to work harder initially will mean that you'll need less effort to recall it later.
These three studies show that when it comes to memory, particularly as you get older, you need to engage your mental cogwheels. Much of our forgetting occurs because we never actively learned the information in the first place. Forgetting to finish what you start is just a special case of that memory mistake. Because you let your mind wander off somewhere else, the experience simply drifts out of your head, only to return again after it's potentially too late to rectify the situation.
Finally, don't get discouraged by an occasional memory slip, even if it's embarrassing or causes you inconvenience. The worst thing you can do is let your "memory self-efficacy," or belief in your mental abilities, drop to the point of despair. Focus on the basics of paying attention to what you're doing, and with practice, you'll be on your way to overcoming even the toughest memory challenges.
For more information, check out my Psychology Today blog on these and other memory mistakes.
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