Why you forget what you came for when you enter the room

Forgetting why you entered a room is called the “Doorway Effect”, and it may reveal as much about the strengths of human memory, as it does the weaknesses, says psychologist Tom Stafford.

We’ve all done it. Run upstairs to get your keys, but forget that it is them you’re looking for once you get to the bedroom. Open the fridge door and reach for the middle shelf only to realise that we can’t remember why we opened the fridge in the first place. Or wait for a moment to interrupt a friend to find that the burning issue that made us want to interrupt has now vanished from our minds just as we come to speak: “What did I want to say again?” we ask a confused audience, who all think “how should we know?!”

Although these errors can be embarrassing, they are also common. It’s known as the “Doorway Effect”, and it reveals some important features of how our minds are organised. Understanding this might help us appreciate those temporary moments of forgetfulness as more than just an annoyance (although they will still be annoying).

These features of our minds are perhaps best illustrated by a story about a woman who meets three builders on their lunch break. “What are you doing today?” she asks the first. “I’m putting brick after sodding brick on top of another,” sighs the first. “What are you doing today?” she asks the second. “I’m building a wall,” is the simple reply. But the third builder swells with pride when asked, and replies: “I’m building a cathedral!”

Maybe you heard that story as encouragement to think of the big picture, but to the psychologist in you the important moral is that any action has to be thought of at multiple levels if you are going to carry it out successfully. The third builder might have the most inspiring view of their day-job, but nobody can build a cathedral without figuring out how to successfully put one brick on top of another like the first builder.

As we move through our days our attention shifts between these levels – from our goals and ambitions, to plans and strategies, and to the lowest levels, our concrete actions. When things are going well, often in familiar situations, we keep our attention on what we want and how we do it seems to take care of itself. If you’re a skilled driver then you manage the gears, indicators and wheel automatically, and your attention is probably caught up in the less routine business of navigating the traffic or talking to your passengers. When things are less routine we have to shift our attention to the details of what we’re doing, taking our minds off the bigger picture for a moment. Hence the pause in conversation as the driver gets to a tricky junction, or the engine starts to make a funny sound.

The way our attention moves up and down the hierarchy of action is what allows us to carry out complex behaviours, stitching together a coherent plan over multiple moments, in multiple places or requiring multiple actions.

The Doorway Effect occurs when our attention moves between levels, and it reflects the reliance of our memories – even memories for what we were about to do – on the environment we’re in.

Imagine that we’re going upstairs to get our keys and forget that it is the keys we came for as soon as we enter the bedroom. Psychologically, what has happened is that the plan (“Keys!”) has been forgotten even in the middle of implementing a necessary part of the strategy (“Go to bedroom!”). Probably the plan itself is part of a larger plan (“Get ready to leave the house!”), which is part of plans on a wider and wider scale (“Go to work!”, “Keep my job!”, “Be a productive and responsible citizen”, or whatever). Each scale requires attention at some point. Somewhere in navigating this complex hierarchy the need for keys popped into mind, and like a circus performer setting plates spinning on poles, your attention focussed on it long enough to construct a plan, but then moved on to the next plate (this time, either walking to the bedroom, or wondering who left their clothes on the stairs again, or what you’re going to do when you get to work or one of a million other things that it takes to build a life).

And sometimes spinning plates fall. Our memories, even for our goals, are embedded in webs of associations. That can be the physical environment in which we form them, which is why revisiting our childhood home can bring back a flood of previously forgotten memories, or it can be the mental environment – the set of things we were just thinking about when that thing popped into mind.

The Doorway Effect occurs because we change both the physical and mental environments, moving to a different room and thinking about different things. That hastily thought up goal, which was probably only one plate among the many we’re trying to spin, gets forgotten when the context changes.

It’s a window into how we manage to coordinate complex actions, matching plans with actions in a way that – most of the time – allows us to put the right bricks in the right place to build the cathedral of our lives.

This is my BBC Future column from Tuesday. The original is here

3 salvoes in the reproducibility crisis

cannonThe reproducibility crisis in Psychology rumbles on. For the uninitiated, this is the general brouhaha we’re having over how reliable published psychological research is. I wrote a piece on this in 2013, which now sounds a little complacent, and unnecessarily focussed on just one area of psychology, given the extent of the problems since uncovered in the way research is manufactured (or maybe not, see below). Anyway, in the last week or so there have been three interesting developments

Despair

Michael Inzlicht blogged his ruminations on the state of the field of social psychology, and they’re not rosy : “We erred, and we erred badly“, he writes. It is a profound testament to the depth of the current concerns about the reliability of psychology when such a senior scientist begins to doubt the reality of some of the phenomenon upon which he has built his career investigating.

As someone who has been doing research for nearly twenty years, I now can’t help but wonder if the topics I chose to study are in fact real and robust. Have I been chasing puffs of smoke for all these years?

Don’t panic!

But not everyone is worried. A team of Harvard A-listers, including Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert, have released press release announcing a commentary on the “Reproducibility Project: Psychology”. This was an attempt to estimate the reliability of a large sample of phenomena from the psychology literature (Short introduction in Nature here). The paper from this project was picked as one of the most important of 2015 by the journal Science.

There project is a huge effort, which is open to multiple interpretations. The Harvard team’s press release is headlined “No evidence of a replicability crisis in psychological science” and claimed “reproducibility of psychological science is indistinguishable from 100%”, as well as calling from the project to put effort into repairing the damage done to the reputation of psychological research. I’d link to the press release, but it looks like between me learning of it yesterday and coming to write about it today this material has been pulled from the internet. The commentary announced was due to be released on March the 4th, so we wait with baited breath for the good news about why we don’t need to worry about the reliability of psychology research. Come on boys, we need some good news.

UPDATE 3rd March: The website is back! No Evidence for a Replicability Crisis in Psychological Science. Commentary here, and response

…But whatever you do, optimally weight evidence

Speaking of the Reproducibility Project, Alexander Etz produced a great Bayesian reanalysis of the data from that project (possible because it is all open access, via the Open Science Framework). This take on the project is a great example of how open science allows people to more easily build on your results, as well as being a vital complement to the original report – not least because it stops you naively accepting any simple statistical report of the what the reproducibility project ‘means’ (e.g. “30% of studies do not replicate” etc). Etz and Joachim Vandekerckhove have now upgraded the analysis to a paper, which is available (open access, natch) in PLoS One : “A Bayesian Perspective on the Reproducibility Project: Psychology“. And their interpretation of the reliability of psychology, as informed by the reproducibility project?

Overall, 75% of studies gave qualitatively similar results in terms of the amount of evidence provided. However, the evidence was often weak …The majority of the studies (64%) did not provide strong evidence for either the null or the alternative hypothesis in either the original or the replication…We conclude that the apparent failure of the Reproducibility Project to replicate many target effects can be adequately explained by overestimation of effect sizes (or overestimation of evidence against the null hypothesis) due to small sample sizes and publication bias in the psychological literature

How to formulate a good resolution

We could spend all year living healthier, more productive lives, so why do we only decide to make the change at the start of the year? BBC Future’s psychologist Tom Stafford explains.

Many of us will start 2016 with resolutions – to get fit, learn a new skill, eat differently. If we really want to do these things, why did we wait until an arbitrary date which marks nothing more important than a timekeeping convention? The answer tells us something important about the psychology of motivation, and about what popular theories of self-control miss out.

What we want isn’t straightforward. At bedtime you might want to get up early and go for a run, but when your alarm goes off you find you actually want a lie-in. When exam day comes around you might want to be the kind of person who spent the afternoons studying, but on each of those afternoons you instead wanted to hang out with your friends.

You could see these contradictions as failures of our self-control: impulses for temporary pleasures manage to somehow override our longer-term interests. One fashionable theory of self-control, proposed by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, is the ‘ego-depletion’ account. This theory states that self-control is like a muscle. This means you can exhaust it in the short-term – meaning that every temptation you resist makes it more likely that you’ll yield to the next temptation, even if it is a temptation to do something entirely different.

Some lab experiments appear to support this limited resource model of willpower. People who had to resist the temptation to eat chocolates were subsequently less successful at solving difficult puzzles which required the willpower to muster up enough concentration to complete them, for instance. Studies of court records, meanwhile, found that the more decisions a parole board judge makes without a meal break, the less lenient they become. Perhaps at the end of a long morning, the self-control necessary for a more deliberated judgement has sapped away, causing them to rely on a harsher “keep them locked up” policy.

A corollary of the ‘like a muscle’ theory is that in the long term, you can strengthen your willpower with practice. So, for example, Baumeister found that people who were assigned two weeks of trying to keep their back straight whenever possible showed improved willpower when asked back into the lab.

Yet the ‘ego-depletion’ theory has critics. My issue with it is that it reduces our willpower to something akin to oil in a tank. Not only does this seem too simplistic, but it sidesteps the core problem of self-control: who or what is controlling who or what? Why is it even the case that we can want both to yield to a temptation, and want to resist it at the same time?

Also, and more importantly, that theory also doesn’t give an explanation why we wait for New Year’s Day to begin exerting our self-control. If your willpower is a muscle, you should start building it up as soon as possible, rather than wait for an arbitrary date.

A battle of wills

Another explanation may answer these questions, although it isn’t as fashionable as ego-depletion. George Ainslie’s book ‘Breakdown of Will‘ puts forward a theory of the self and self-control which uses game theory to explain why we have trouble with our impulses, and why our attempts to control them take the form they do.

Ainslie’s account begins with the idea that we have, within us, a myriad of competing impulses, which exist on different time-scales: the you that wants to stay in bed five more minutes, the you that wants to start the day with a run, the you that wants to be fit for the half-marathon in April. Importantly, the relative power of these impulses changes as they get nearer in time: the early start wins against the lie-in the day before, but it is a different matter at 5am. Ainslie has a detailed account of why this is, and it has some important implications for our self-control.

According to this theory, our preferences are unstable and inconsistent, the product of a war between our competing impulses, good and bad, short and long-term. A New Year’s resolution could therefore be seen as an alliance between these competing motivations, and like any alliance, it can easily fall apart. Addictions are a good example, because the long-term goal (“not to be an alcoholic”) requires the coordination of many small goals (“not to have a drink at 4pm;” “not at 5pm;” “not at 6pm,” and so on), none of which is essential. You can have a drink at 4pm and still be a moderate drinker. You can even have a drink also at 5pm, but somewhere along the line all these small choices add up to a failure to keep to the wider goal. Similarly, if you want to get fit in 2016, you don’t have to go for a jog on 1 January, or even on 2 January, but if you don’t start doing exercise on one particular day then you will never meet your larger goal.

From Ainslie’s perspective willpower is a bargaining game played by the forces within ourselves, and like any conflict of interest, if the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable isn’t clearly defined then small infractions can quickly escalate. For this reason, Ainslie says, resolutions cluster around ‘clean lines’, sharp distinctions around which no quibble is brooked. The line between moderate and problem drinking isn’t clear (and liable to be even less clear around your fourth glass), but the line between teetotal and drinker is crystal.

This is why advice on good habits is often of the form “Do X every day”, and why diets tend to absolutes: “No gluten;” “No dessert;” “Fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays”. We know that if we leave the interpretation open to doubt, although our intentions are good, we’ll undermine our resolutions when we’re under the influence of our more immediate impulses.

And, so, Ainslie gives us an answer to why our resolutions start on 1 January. The date is completely arbitrary, but it provides a clean line between our old and new selves.

The practical upshot of the theory is that if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.

Good luck for your 2016 resolutions!

Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer forum for Cognitive Science. The Stack Exchange model works well for computer programming and now cogsci.stackexchange.com is one of the 150+ sites in their family, which includes topics as diverse as academia, mythology and pets.

There’s a dedicated community of people answering questions and voting on answers, producing  a great resource patterned around the questions people have on Cognitive Science topics. Three examples:

So head over, if you have questions, or if you can lend an evidence-based, citation-supported, hand in working on answers:

Link: Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

pro_lockThe Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative” is a grassroots attempt to promote open science by organising academics’ work as reviewers. All academics spend countless hours on peer review, a task which is unpaid, often pretty thankless, and yet employs their unique and hard-won skills as scholars. We do this, despite misgivings about the current state of scholarly publishing, because we know that good science depends on review and criticism.

Often this work is hampered because papers don’t disclose the data upon which the conclusions were drawn, or even share the materials used in the experiments. When journal articles only appeared in print and space was limited this was excusable. It no longer is.

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative is a pledge scholars can take, saying that they will not recommend for publication any article which does not make the data, materials and analysis code publicly available. You can read the exact details of the initiative here and you can sign it here.

The good of society, and for the good of science, everybody should be able to benefit from, and criticise, in all details, scientific work. Good science is open science.

Link: The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

5 classic studies of learning

Photo by Wellcome and Flickr user Rebecca-Lee. Click for source.I have a piece in the Guardian, ‘The science of learning: five classic studies‘. Here’s the intro:

A few classic studies help to define the way we think about the science of learning. A classic study isn’t classic just because it uncovered a new fact, but because it neatly demonstrates a profound truth about how we learn – often at the same time showing up our unjustified assumptions about how our minds work.

My picks for five classics of learning were:

  • Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts”
  • Skinner’s operant conditioning
  • work on dissociable memory systems by Larry Squire and colleagues
  • de Groot’s studies of expertise in chess grandmasters, and ….
  • Anders Ericcson’s work on deliberate practice (of ‘ten thousands hours’ fame)

Obviously, that’s just my choice (and you can read my reasons in the article). Did I choose right? Or is there a classic study of learning I missed? Answers in the comments.

Link: ‘The science of learning: five classic studies

Why do we forget names?

A reader, Dan, asks “Why do we forget people’s names when we first meet them? I can remember all kinds of other details about a person but completely forget their name. Even after a lengthy, in-depth conversation. It’s really embarrassing.”

Fortunately the answer involves learning something fundamental about the nature of memory. It also provides a solution that can help you to avoid the embarrassing social situation of having spoken to someone for an hour, only to have forgotten their name.

To know why this happens you have to recognise that our memories aren’t a simple filing system, with separate folders for each kind of information and a really brightly coloured folder labelled “Names”.

Rather, our minds are associative. They are built out of patterns of interconnected information. This is why we daydream: you notice that the book you’re reading was printed in Paris, and that Paris is home to the Eiffel Tower, that your cousin Mary visited last summer, and Mary loves pistachio ice-cream. Say, I wonder if she ate a pistachio ice cream while up the Tower? It goes on and on like that, each item connected to every other, not by logic but by coincidence of time, place, how you learnt the information and what it means.

The same associative network means you can guess a question from the answer. Answer: “Eiffel Tower?” Question: “Paris’s most famous landmark.” This makes memory useful, because you can often go as easily from the content to the label as vice versa: “what is in the top drawer?” isn’t a very interesting question, but it becomes so when you want the answer “where are my keys?”.

So memory is built like this on purpose, and now we can see the reason why we forget names. Our memories are amazing, but they respond to how many associations we make with new information, not with how badly we want to remember it.

When you meet someone for the first time you learn their name, but for your memory it is probably an arbitrary piece of information unconnected to anything else you know, and unconnected to all the other things you later learn about them. After your conversation, in which you probably learn about their job, and their hobbies, and their family or whatever, all this information becomes linked in your memory. Imagine you are talking to a guy with a blue shirt who likes fishing and works selling cars, but would rather give it up to sell fishing gear. Now if you can remember one bit of information (“sell cars”) you can follow the chain to the others (“sells cars but wants to give it up”, “wants to give it up to sell fishing gear”, “loves fishing” and so on). The trouble is that your new friend’s name doesn’t get a look in because it is simply a piece of arbitrary information you didn’t connect to anything else about the conversation.

Fortunately, there are ways to strengthen those links so it does become entrenched with the other memories. Here’s how to remember the name, using some basic principles of memory.

First, you should repeat any name said to you. Practice is one of the golden rules of learning: more practice makes stronger memories. In addition, when you use someone’s name you are linking it to yourself, in the physical act of saying it, but also to the current topic of the conversation in your memory (“So, James, just what is it about fishing that makes you love it so much?”).

Second, you should try to link the name you have just learnt to something you already know. It doesn’t matter if the link is completely silly, it is just important that you find some connection to help the name stick in memory. For example, maybe the guy is called James, and your high school buddy was called James, and although this guy is wearing a blue shirt, high school James only ever wore black, so he’d never wear blue. It’s a silly made up association, but it can help you remember.

Finally, you need to try to link their name to something else about them. If it was me I’d grab the first thing to come to mind to bridge between the name and something I’ve learnt about them. For example, James is a sort of biblical name, you get the King James bible after all, and James begins with J, just like Jonah in the bible who was swallowed by the whale, and this James likes fishing, but I bet he prefers catching them to being caught by them.

It doesn’t matter if the links you make are outlandish or weird. You don’t have to tell anyone. In fact, probably it is best if you don’t tell anyone, especially your new friend! But the links will help create a web of association in your memory, and that web will stop their name falling out of your mind when it is time to introduce them to someone else.

And if you’re sceptical, try this quick test. I’ve mentioned three names during this article. I bet you can remember James, who isn’t Jonah. And probably you can remember cousin Mary (or at least what kind of ice cream she likes). But you can you remember the name of the reader who asked the question? That’s the only one I introduced without elaborating some connections around the name, and that’s why I’ll bet it is the only one you’ve forgotten.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here