action slips

Action Slips

There is a very common form of forgetfulness that is not really a failure of memory. When we get in our car to drive to place A and find ourselves instead on the road to the more familiar place B, this is not a failure of memory. When we clear the table and find ourselves putting the margarine in the dishwasher or the dirty plate in the fridge, this is not a failure of memory. When we go into a room intending to do one thing and do something else instead, this is not, really, a failure of memory.

These are absentminded errors, and they happen to all of us. They have also been termed action slips, and this term is useful because it points more precisely to the nature of these errors. Let's look at the characteristics of action slips:

  • they usually occur during the performance of tasks that are so highly practised they are largely automatic
  • they usually occur when we are preoccupied or distracted
  • many involve intrusions of other habitual actions that share some characteristics with the intended action
  • such habit intrusions are more likely to occur when:
    • we're departing in some way from our usual routine (for example, you decide to stop adding milk and sugar to your coffee, then finding yourself doing it automatically)
    • the situation has changed, demanding a change in our usual routine (for example, a much-visited shop moves premises, but you keep going to its old location)
    • the situation shares features with a highly familiar situation (for example, you try and open a friend's car with your own car key)

Other types of action slips are:

  • place-losing errors - where you've lost your "place" in an action sequence, and so omit or repeat part of the sequence (for example, because of wheat sensitivities in my family, I make our own bread; accordingly, it is a highly practiced recipe, and I add all the ingredients in a fixed order. If something happens to distract me in the course of it, I may be unsure where I am in the sequence, and risk omitting or repeating an ingredient)
  • blends - where you get confused between two active tasks (for example, you write an email while thinking about the next email you're going to write, and address the current email to the correspondent for the second email)
  • reversals - where you get confused between parts of the same task (for example, you put an empty ice cube tray in the freezer, then turn to the tap to fill it)

You can see from all this that these everyday errors occur in the context of action sequences - that is, sequences of actions that we have practised so often they have become automatic. Dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, even making quite complicated recipes - these are all common examples of action sequences.

You can see why action slip is therefore a good name for these types of error.

Is there anything we can do to minimize action slips? Well, the standard advice is to pay attention to what you're doing, but of course the whole point of action sequences is that they free our mind from needing to pay attention, so this is not a strategy I particularly recommend. However, if there are some action slips that you are particularly prone to, you might want to try this.

The most useful thing you can do is simply be aware of the circumstances that set you up for such errors. Then you can either:

  • make a sterling effort to pay attention when it's important to you (for example, both my partner and I are careful when we are driving and need to depart from familiar routes, to remind ourselves - or each other - of our destination at key points), or
  • use an object to signal that you have done something, or remind you where you are in a sequence (to take the recipe example again, you could move used ingredients to a particular part of the kitchen bench), or
  • decide it's not important!

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 newsletter.

  1. Harris, J.E. & Morris, P.E. (eds.) 1984. Everyday memory, actions and absent-mindedness. Academic Press.
  2. Reason, J.T. & Mysielska, K. 1982. Absent-minded? The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.

Forgetting a skill or procedure

Memory for skills — procedural memory — is stored as action sequences, in our unconscious memory.

Because this type of memory is very reliable, failures are usually particularly puzzling and even distressing.

Because the memory is less accessible, we also tend to have problems dealing with failures.

Failures occur when an action sequence becomes disrupted for some reason. When this happens, we have to retrieve the knowledge stored in our conscious memory, that we used when learning the skill.

Have you ever been driving a car and suddenly you’re not sure what to do? You’re traveling along in usual automatic fashion and there comes a moment when you need to engage a new subroutine — say, you need to give way at an intersection, or you stall at the traffic lights, or you stop the car — and suddenly, you don’t know what to do. There’s a flash of panic, even while you’re thinking, “This is stupid, I’ve done this a thousand times”, and then, maybe it’s all right, maybe you have to take a moment to get your head in the right space, and ... okay, you’re off again, control safely in the hands of the automatic pilot.

But you’re unsettled. There are lots of ways our memory fails us. Some of these are very common, so common we just accept them — noone (well, few of us) expect our memories to be 100% perfect all the time. But procedural memory — the memory that allows us to drive a car, ride a bike, type, play the piano, etc — is different from other types of memory. We don’t say “it’s like riding a bicycle” without reason. Once we’ve truly mastered a skill, we expect to have that, for ever. And, for the most part, we do.

The thing about procedural memory — the big difference between it and so-called declarative memory — is that it is not in conscious memory. That’s its huge advantage; we could never perform skills fast enough if they were under conscious control. As we acquire a skill, the declarative information we learn (‘use your little finger on the “a”; the “s” is next to the “a”; the “d” is next to the “s” ’ etc) is transformed into so-called “procedural rules”, which are completely internalized, beyond our conscious manipulation. This greatly reduces the involvement of working memory, and protects the skill from the types of interference that other types of memory are vulnerable to.

It also means that when we do have a failure, we really don’t know how to deal with it. A conscious mental search is not going to retrieve the needed information, because the information we want is not in our accessible database. So what usually happens is that we are forced to default to our backup — the declarative information we encoded during the original learning process. It is this that accounts for the lack of fluency in the subsequent actions; to regain fluency, you must engage the unconscious action sequence.

I don’t know of any research that has looked into these occasional glitches, but I presume that what happens is that the action sequence doesn’t immediately engage. As soon as it doesn’t, we pay attention — that makes it even more likely that the action sequence won’t be triggered, because conscious awareness is precisely what we don’t want.

One piece of research that is relevant to this is a recent study that looked at the phenomenon of “choking” — top athletes performing below par at crucial moments. It’s suggested that the problem lies in part in the athlete paying too much attention to what they’re doing. Skills are the one area of memory where too much attention is deleterious to performance!

I think the best way to deal with this very occasional glitch in performance is to relax, stop thinking about what you’re doing, go back a little in the action sequence to an obvious starting point (if you can’t or don’t need to physically re-do earlier steps, mimic the steps). Remember that skills are stored as sequences, and it’s hard to break in halfway through a sequence, you need to start at the beginning.

You can read more about skill memory and about the best way to practice.

You might also be interested in a related (but separate) issue, that of action slips, which are a product of a lack of attention, not a surfeit.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 newsletter.

Checklists dramatically reduce errors in operating room crises

A simulated study of life-threatening surgical crises has found that using a checklist reduced the omission of critical steps from 23% to 6%.

I reported recently on how easily and quickly we can get derailed from a chain of thought (or action). In similar vein, here’s another study that shows how easy it is to omit important steps in an emergency, even when you’re an expert — which is why I’m a great fan of checklists.

Checklists have been shown to dramatically decrease the chances of an error, in areas such as flying and medicine. However, while surgeons may use checklists as a matter of routine (a study a few years ago found that the use of routine checklists before surgery substantially reduced the chances of a serious complication — we can hope that everyone’s now on board with that!), there’s a widespread belief in medicine that operating room crises are too complex for a checklist to be useful. A new study contradicts that belief.

The study involved 17 operating room teams (anesthesia staff, operating room nurses, surgical technologists, a surgeon), who participated in 106 simulated surgical crisis scenarios in a simulated operating room. Each team was randomized to manage half of the scenarios with a set of crisis checklists and the remaining scenarios from memory alone.

When checklists were used, the teams were 74% less likely to miss critical steps. That is, without a checklist, nearly a quarter (23%) of the steps were omitted (an alarming figure!), while with a checklist, only 6% of the steps were omitted on average. Every team performed better when the checklists were available.

After experiencing these situations, almost all (97%) participants said they would want these checklists used if they experienced such a crisis if they were a patient.

It’s comforting to know that airline pilots do have checklists to use in emergency situations. Now we must hope that hospitals come on board with this as well (up-to-date checklists and implementation materials can be found at

For the rest of us, the study serves as a reminder that, however practiced we may think we are, forgetting steps in an action plan is only too common, and checklists are an excellent means of dealing with this — in emergency and out.


[3262] Arriaga, A. F., Bader A. M., Wong J. M., Lipsitz S. R., Berry W. R., Ziewacz J. E., et al. (2013).  Simulation-Based Trial of Surgical-Crisis Checklists. New England Journal of Medicine. 368(3), 246 - 253.

Even tiny interruptions can double or treble work errors

A new study quantifies the degree to which tasks that involve actions in a precise sequence are vulnerable to interruptions.

In my book on remembering intentions, I spoke of how quickly and easily your thoughts can be derailed, leading to ‘action slips’ and, in the wrong circumstances, catastrophic mistakes. A new study shows how a 3-second interruption while doing a task doubled the rate of sequence errors, while a 4s one tripled it.

The study involved 300 people, who were asked to perform a series of ordered steps on the computer. The steps had to be performed in a specific sequence, mnemonically encapsulated by UNRAVEL, with each letter identifying the step. The task rules for each step differed, requiring the participant to mentally shift gears each time. Moreover, task elements could have multiple elements — for example, the letter U could signal the step, one of two possible responses for that step, or be a stimulus requiring a specific response when the step was N. Each step required the participant to choose between two possible responses based on one stimulus feature — features included whether it was a letter or a digit, whether it was underlined or italic, whether it was red or yellow, whether the character outside the outline box was above or below. There were also more cognitive features, such as whether the letter was near the beginning of the alphabet or not. The identifying mnemonic for the step was linked to the possible responses (e.g., N step – near or far; U step — underline or italic).

At various points, participants were very briefly interrupted. In the first experiment, they were asked to type four characters (letters or digits); in the second experiment, they were asked to type only two (a very brief interruption indeed!).

All of this was designed to set up a situation emulating “train of thought” operations, where correct performance depends on remembering where you are in the sequence, and on producing a situation where performance would have reasonably high proportion of errors — one of the problems with this type of research has been the use of routine tasks that are generally performed with a high degree of accuracy, thus generating only small amounts of error data for analysis.

In both experiments, interruptions significantly increased the rate of sequence errors on the first trial after the interruption (but not on subsequent ones). Nonsequence errors were not affected. In the first experiment (four-character interruption), the sequence error rate on the first trial after the interruption was 5.8%, compared to 1.8% on subsequent trials. In the second experiment (two-character interruption), it was 4.3%.

The four-character interruptions lasted an average of 4.36s, and the two-character interruptions lasted an average of 2.76s.

Whether the characters being typed were letters or digits made no difference, suggesting that the disruptive effects of interruptions are not overly sensitive to what’s being processed during the interruption (although of course these are not wildly different processes!).

The absence of effect on nonsequence errors shows that interruptions aren’t disrupting global attentional resources, but more specifically the placekeeping task.

As I discussed in my book, the step also made a significant difference — for sequence errors, middle steps showed higher error rates than end steps.

All of this confirms and quantifies how little it takes to derail us, and reminds us that, when engaged in tasks involving the precise sequence of sub-tasks (which so many tasks do), we need to be alert to the dangers of interruptions. This is, of course, particularly true for those working in life-critical areas, such as medicine.


[3207] Altmann, E. M., Gregory J., & Hambrick D. Z. (2013).  Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. No - Pagination Specified.

News Topic aging - specific failures

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

More evidence the aging brain is easily distracted

Here’s another study demonstrating that older adults aren't able to filter out distracting information as well as younger adults. The imaging study compared face recognition performance in younger adults (average age 26) and older (average age 70). It was found that, for both groups, difficulties encoding a new face were marked by decreased activity in the hippocampus. But older brains also showed increased activation in the auditory cortex, left prefrontal cortex and medial parietal cortex, showing that they were processing too much irrelevant information from their external environment – the notoriously loud noise of the scanner. Apart from confirming the distractibility of the older brain, the finding also raises questions about imaging studies in general, for older adults. It’s likely that older adults’ cognitive performance have been systematically underestimated.

[520] Stevens, D. W., Hasher L., Chiew K. S., & Grady C. L. (2008).  A Neural Mechanism Underlying Memory Failure in Older Adults. J. Neurosci.. 28(48), 12820 - 12824.

Age-related memory loss tied to slip in filtering information quickly

Increasing research in recent years has concluded that one of the problems for the aging brain is a diminished ability to ignore irrelevant information. In fact, many believe it is the major problem for the healthy aging brain. Others believe, more traditionally, that the main problem is a decline in processing speed. A new study shows that both of these happen — in tandem. The difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs because the processing of that irrelevant information has slowed down. This slowdown, at least in visual memory, seems to occur only in the first 200 milliseconds of visual processing, and the difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs only during this period. This suppression failure is thought to impact on working memory.

[553] Gazzaley, A., Clapp W., Kelley J., McEvoy K., Knight R. T., & D'Esposito M. (2008).  Age-related top-down suppression deficit in the early stages of cortical visual memory processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(35), 13122 - 13126.

More on why older adults are more distractible

A number of recent studies have made it clear that as we age, we find it harder to block out unwanted distractions. A new study used a new brain imaging technique known as EROS to determine whether this is due to faster sensory memory decay or to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information. The study involved 16 young and 16 older participants who read a book of their choice while distracting tones played in the background. The volume of the tones was adjusted so that all the participants heard them at the same level, and the tones were emitted in groups of fives. The young participants showed brain activity in the auditory cortex in response to the first tone in each sequence only, but the older adults' brains responded to all five. The finding supports the view that the growing difficulty at blocking out distractions is due to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information , not faster sensory memory decay.

[1380] Fabiani, M., Low K. A., Wee E., Sable J. J., & Gratton G. (2006).  Reduced Suppression or Labile Memory? Mechanisms of Inefficient Filtering of Irrelevant Information in Older Adults. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(4), 637 - 650.

Why older adults more vulnerable to distraction from irrelevant information

We know older adults find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. Now a study looking at brain function in young, middle-aged and older adults has identified changes in brain activity that begin gradually in middle age which may explain why. In younger adults, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with tasks that require concentration, such as reading) normally increases during the task, while activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions (associated with non-task related activity in a resting state, such as thinking about yourself, what you did last night, monitoring what's going on around you) normally decreases. In middle age (40-60 years), this pattern begins to break down during performance of memory tasks, although performance is not affected (but most of the participants were fairly well educated, so the finding of brain changes without accompanying behavioural changes in the middle-aged group may reflect the "protective effect" of education). Activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions stays turned on while activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases. The imbalance becomes more pronounced in older adults (65+), suggesting there is a gradual, age-related reduction in the ability to suspend non-task-related or "default-mode" activity and engage areas for carrying out memory tasks.

[759] Grady, C. L., Springer M. V., Hongwanishkul D., McIntosh A. R., & Winocur G. (2006).  Age-related Changes in Brain Activity across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(2), 227 - 241.

Changes in brain, not age, determine one's ability to focus on task

It’s been established that one of the reasons why older adults may do less well on cognitive tasks is because they have greater difficulty in ignoring distractions, which impairs their concentration. But not all older people are afflicted by this. Some are as focused as young adults. An imaging study has now revealed a difference between the brains of those people who are good at focusing, and those who are poor. Those who have difficulty screening out distractions have less white matter in the frontal lobes. They activated neurons in the left frontal lobe as well as the right. Young people and high-functioning older adults tended to use only the right frontal lobe.

[1117] Colcombe, S. J., Kramer A. F., Erickson K. I., & Scalf P. (2005).  The implications of cortical recruitment and brain morphology for individual differences in inhibitory function in aging humans. Psychology and Aging. 20(3), 363 - 375.

Memory loss in older adults due to distractions, not inability to focus

We know that older adults often have short-term memory problems, and this has been linked to problems with attention. An imaging study now provides evidence that these short-term memory problems are associated with an inability to filter out surrounding distractions, rather than problems with focusing attention. It’s been suggested that an inability to ignore distracting information may indeed be at the heart of many of the cognitive problems that accompany aging. It should be noted that this is not an inevitable effect of age — in the study, 6 of the 16 older adults involved had no problems with short-term memory or attention.

[383] Gazzaley, A., Cooney J. W., Rissman J., & D'Esposito M. (2005).  Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal aging. Nat Neurosci. 8(10), 1298 - 1300.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Older adults more likely to "remember" misinformation

In a study involving older adults (average age 75) and younger adults (average age 19), participants studied lists of paired related words, then viewed new lists of paired words, some the same as before, some different, and some with only one of the two words the same. In those cases, the "prime" word, which was presented immediately prior to the test, was plausible but incorrect. The older adults were 10 times more likely than young adults to accept the wrong word and falsely "remember" earlier studying that word. This was true even though older adults had more time to study the list of word pairs and attained a performance level equal to that of the young adults. Additionally, when told they had the option to "pass" when unsure of an answer, older adults rarely used the option. Younger adults did, greatly reducing their false recall. The findings reflect real-world reports of a rising incidence of scams perpetrated on the elderly, which rely on the victim’s poor memory and vulnerability to the power of suggestion.

[629] Jacoby, L. L., Bishara A. J., Hessels S., & Toth J. P. (2005).  Aging, subjective experience, and cognitive control: dramatic false remembering by older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General. 134(2), 131 - 148.

Repeated product warnings are remembered as product recommendations

Warnings about particular products may have quite the opposite effect than intended. Because we retain a familiarity with encountered items far longer than details, the more often we are told a claim about a consumer item is false, the more likely we are to accept it as true a little further down the track. Research also reveals that older adults are more susceptible to this error. It is relevant to note that in the U.S. at least, some 80% of consumer fraud victims are over 65.

[489] Skurnik, I., Yoon C., Park D. C., & Schwarz N. (2005).  How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research. 31(4), 713 - 724.

Source-memory problems not an inevitable consequence of aging, but a function of frontal-lobe efficiency

Source memory is memory for the broad contextual aspects surrounding an event, such as who was speaking, or whether you learned something from a book or TV. Previous research has found that it is in this aspect of memory that older people tend to be particularly poor. In a study that compared older individuals with undergraduates, it was found that those who performed above average on frontal-lobe tests, showed no significant impairment of source memory, regardless of age. Those with below-average performance, tended to have impaired source memory (as a group). In other words, source-memory problems are not an inevitable consequence of aging, as has been widely thought, but rather are a function of frontal-lobe efficiency. The proportion of older adults who experience frontal-lobe decline, at what ages, and to what degree, is unknown at this time.
What’s more, when researchers required people to consider the relation between an item and its context (source), age differences in memory performance completely disappeared, suggesting older adults can learn strategies to remember the context better.

[626] Glisky, E. L., Rubin S. R., & Davidson P. S. R. (2001).  Source Memory in Older Adults: An Encoding or Retrieval Problem?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 27(5), 1131 - 1146.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Genetic cause for word-finding disease

Primary Progressive Aphasia is a little-known form of dementia in which people lose the ability to express themselves and understand speech. People can begin to show symptoms of PPA as early as in their 40's and 50's. A new study has found has discovered a gene mutation in two unrelated families in which nearly all the siblings suffered from PPA. The mutations were not observed in the healthy siblings or in more than 200 controls.

[1164] Hutton, M. L., Graff-Radford N. R., Mesulam M. Marsel, Johnson N., Krefft T. A., Gass J. M., et al. (2007).  Progranulin Mutations in Primary Progressive Aphasia: The PPA1 and PPA3 Families. Arch Neurol. 64(1), 43 - 47.

Word substitution mistakes have more to do with speech planning than with thought or attention problems

Why is it that we can look at something, know what it is and still call it by the wrong name? A new study suggests that the problem doesn’t lie in haste or a lack of attention, but rather in a fault in speech planning.

Griffin, Z.M. 2004. The eyes are right when the mouth is wrong. Psychological Science, 15 (12), 814-820.

What causes word finding failures in young and older adults

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Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Older people with the 'Alzheimer's gene' find it harder to remember intentions

It has been established that those with a certain allele of a gene called ApoE have a much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s (those with this allele on both genes have 8 times the risk; those with the allele on one gene have 3 times the risk). Recent studies also suggest that such carriers are also more likely to show signs of deficits in episodic memory – but that these deficits are quite subtle. In the first study to look at prospective memory in seniors with the “Alzheimer’s gene”, involving 32 healthy, dementia-free adults between ages of 60 and 87, researchers found a marked difference in performance between those who had the allele and those who did not. The results suggest an exception to the thinking that ApoE status has only a subtle effect on cognition.

[1276] Driscoll, I., McDaniel M. A., & Guynn M. J. (2005).  Apolipoprotein E and prospective memory in normally aging adults. Neuropsychology. 19(1), 28 - 34.

'Imagination' helps older people remember to comply with medical advice

A new study suggests a way to help older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice. Researchers found older adults (aged 60 to 81) who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50% more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques. Participants were assigned to one of three groups. One group spent one 3-minute session visualizing exactly what they would be doing and where they would be the next day when they were scheduled to test their blood sugar levels. Another group repeatedly recited aloud the instructions for testing their blood. The last group were asked to write a list of pros and cons for testing blood sugar. All participants were asked not to use timers, alarms or other devices. Over 3 weeks, the “imagination” group remembered 76% of the time to test their blood sugar at the right times of the day compared to an average of 46% in the other two groups. They were also far less likely to go an entire day without testing than those in the other two groups.

[473] Liu, L. L., & Park D. C. (2004).  Aging and medical adherence: the use of automatic processes to achieve effortful things. Psychology and Aging. 19(2), 318 - 325.

Old news section5: 

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Old news section6: 

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Typing test reveals two processes in error detection

A study involving skilled typists shows how the part of a person that does the thinking relies on different feedback than the part that does the doing.

There are a number of ways experts think differently from novices (in their area of expertise). A new study involving 72 college-age typists with about 12 years of typing experience and typing speeds comparable to professional typists indicates that our idea that highly skilled activities operate at an unconscious level is a little more complex than we thought.

In three experiments, these skilled typists typed single words shown to them one at a time on a computer screen, while occasionally the researchers inserted errors in the words they typed, or corrected errors they made. When asked to report errors, typists took credit for corrected errors and accepted blame for inserted errors, claiming authorship for the appearance of the screen. Not surprising in the first experiment, when the typists weren’t told what the researchers were doing. But even in the later experiments, when they knew some of the errors and some of the corrections weren’t theirs, they still tended to take responsibility for what they saw.

Nevertheless, regardless of what they saw and what they thought, their typing rate wasn’t affected by inserted errors. Only when the typists themselves made errors, regardless of whether or not the researchers corrected them, did their fingers slow down.

In other words, it wasn’t the feedback of the look of the word on the screen that triggered the finger slow-down, but the ‘knowledge’ the fingers had as to what they had done.

But it was the appearance of the words on the screen that governed the typists’ reporting of errors, leading the researchers to propose two error detection processes: an outer loop that supports conscious reports and an inner loop process that slows keystrokes after errors.


Logan, G.D. & Crump, M.J.C. 2010. Cognitive Illusions of Authorship Reveal Hierarchical Error Detection in Skilled Typists. Science, 330 (6004), 683-686.

Have I done it?

Watching another person do something can leave you with the memory of having done it yourself.

I’m not at all sure why the researcher says they were “stunned” by these findings, since it doesn’t surprise me in the least, but a series of experiments into the role of imagination in creating false memories has revealed that people who had watched a video of someone else doing a simple action often remembered doing the action themselves two weeks later. In fact in my book on remembering intentions, which includes a chapter on remembering whether you’ve done something, I mention the risk of imagining yourself doing something (that you then go on to believe you have actually done it), and given all the research on mirror neurons, it’s no big step to go from watching someone doing something to remembering that you did it. Nevertheless, it’s nice to get the confirmation.

The experiments involved participants performing several simple actions, such as shaking a bottle or shuffling a deck of cards. Then they watched videos of someone else doing simple actions—some of which they had performed themselves and some of which they hadn’t. Two weeks later, they were asked which actions they had done. They were much more likely to falsely remember doing an action if they had watched someone else do it — even when they had been warned about the effect.

It seems likely that this is an unfortunate side-effect of a very useful ability — namely our ability to learn motor skills by observing others (using the aforesaid mirror neurons) — and there’s probably not a great deal we can do to prevent it happening. It’s just a reminder of how easy it is to form false memories.


[1839] Lindner, I., Echterhoff G., Davidson P. S. R., & Brand M. (2010).  Observation Inflation. Psychological Science. 21(9), 1291 - 1299.

Interruptions associated with medication errors by nurses

A study of medication administrations in hospitals has found scarily high rates of procedural and clinical failures, of which 2.7% were considered to be major errors — which were much more likely to occur after interruptions, particularly repeated interruptions. Nurse experience provided no protection and indeed was associated with higher procedural failure rates (common with procedural failures — expertise renders you more vulnerable, not less).

As we all know, being interrupted during a task greatly increases the chance we’ll go off-kilter (I discuss the worst circumstances and how you can minimize the risk of mistakes in my book Planning to remember). Medication errors occur as often as once per patient per day in some settings, and around one-third of harmful medication errors are thought to occur during medication administration. Now an in-depth study involving 98 nurses at two Australian teaching hospitals over 505 hours has revealed that at least one procedural failure occurred in 74.4% of administrations and at least one clinical failure in 25%. Each interruption was associated with a 12.1% increase in procedural failures and a 12.7% increase in clinical errors. Procedural failures include such errors as failure to check patient's identification, record medication administration, use aseptic technique; clinical failures such errors as wrong drug, dose, or route. Interruptions occurred in over half of the 4000 drug administrations. While most errors were rated as clinically insignificant, 2.7% were considered to be major errors — and these were much more likely to occur after interruptions, particularly after repeated interruptions. The risk of major error was 2.3% when there was no interruption; this rose to 4.7% with four interruptions. Nurse experience provided no protection against making a clinical error and was associated with higher procedural failure rates (this is common with procedural failures — expertise renders you more vulnerable, not less).

Planning to Remember

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212 pages
Publisher: Wayz Press (April, 2010)
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Read an excerpt

Remembering Intentions has been updated and extended! The new book includes several new chapters, covering short-term memory and attention problems, forgetting what you are doing, and motivational issues.

Table of Contents

Why read this book?

What this book is about

What this book should do for you

How memory works and why it sometimes fails

Memories are made of this

Why people fail to remember

Know thyself: a quiz

Remembering to do things

Memory for future actions is different from other types of memory

Retrospective memory

Forgetting routine actions is not a failure of memory

Short-term goals and short-term memory

Working memory

Working memory and attention

Age and attention

Forgetting what you’re doing

Short-term memory problems are attention problems

Action sequences are why we make action slips

Common types of action slip

Situations when action slips are most likely

Have I done it already?

What makes some people more prone to absent-minded errors?

How to prevent action slips

Structuring your goals

A hierarchy of goals

Ordering your goals

The problem of suspended intentions

Circumstances that affect your remembering

Event-based retrieval cues are better than time-based

Is being too busy a valid excuse?

Wanting to remember is not enough!

Timing and complexity

Are some people better at remembering intentions?

Age differences

Individual differences

General strategies for remembering intentions

Strategies people use

Effective strategies for remembering intentions

Mental strategies for better recall

Using environmental memory aids

Strategies for specific tasks

Remembering appointments

Remembering anniversaries and birthdays

Remembering arrangements

Remembering errands and chores

Remembering to take medicine

Your master strategy

Assessing memory tasks

Deciding on your memory strategies


It’s not all about memory

We fail to achieve intentions for many reasons

Believing in your abilities

The bottom line

Appendix A: Theories of prospective memory

Appendix B: External memory aids

Appendix C: The coding mnemonic

Appendix D: Specific strategies for specific tasks

Appendix E: Questionnaire

Glossary of terms


Chapter Notes


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