Brain and Body

You Can “Hack” Your Memory to Better Follow Through With Your Intentions, Study Suggests

May 24, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

To-do list
Photo credit: Stacy Spensley/flickr (CC by 2.0)

No more forgetting to pay the bills.

Paying the electric bill or taking out the trash sound like simple responsibilities, but they can be the easiest to slip through the cracks of our memories into the abyss of unintentionally forgotten tasks.

New research suggests that there may be a “no-cost” and “low-effort” strategy for hacking our memories to follow through with our intentions — linking our tasks to distinctive and timely cues.

The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, outlines two separate experiments in which the memories of participants were tested with or without distinctive cues.

First, 87 participants completed an hour-long computer task, and they learned that they’d be able to receive compensation for participating as well as have $1 donated to a food bank. However, in order for the donation to be made, they were told they’d have to pick up a paper clip upon collecting their payment.

Some of the students received a second message stating that there would be an elephant statue on the payment counter to remind them to pick up the paper clip, while others were simply thanked for their participation.

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The results revealed that 74 percent of the students who received the elephant statue cue ended up picking up a paper clip, compared to just 42 percent of those who didn’t receive a cue. The simple yet distinctive association effectively boosted the rate of follow-through.

"Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur," study author Todd Rogers, psychological scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, said in a press release.

Through an additional experiment, the researchers investigated whether any cue will work, or if certain ones boost the memory better than others.

This time, participants were asked to complete a survey, and were told they would have the opportunity to support a charitable organization. To have a donation made on their behalf, they were instructed to choose a specific answer on a specific page of the survey.

The volunteers received one of two types of cues designed by the researchers to remind them to select the correct answer. One was a distinctive cue — for instance, an image of the aliens from the Toy Story movies, while the other was a written reminder surrounded by other promotional signs and flyers. The results revealed that the distinctive cues proved to be more effective reminders.

Taken together, the findings suggest that setting ourselves up with distinctive memory cues can help us remember to follow through with the simple tasks that are often forgotten in our busy everyday lives.

The scientists hope to build on this research by investigating whether these reminders through association could also help boost consistency with medical and other health-related routines.

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