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Heres why we falsely remember completing tasks we had intended to do

Finishing off a big task can be memorable, whether you sincerely feel you’ve achieved something or are just relieved to have got it out of the way. Everyday tasks, however, are much more mundane: taking your daily medication or typing in a password are unlikely to be particularly noteworthy events.

You may also have found a gap between your intention to do a particular mundane task and actually enacting it — meaning you either can’t remember whether you actually did it, or misremember having done it entirely. It’s this phenomenon that Dolores Albarracin and colleagues from the University of Illinois explore for the first time in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the first part of the study, participants played the part of a manager reviewing applications to model for a clothing brochure. In some cases, participants were asked whether they wanted to hire the applicant immediately; in others, they were asked to state whether they intended to hire the applicant later; and in a control condition, were asked to state whether the gender listed in a form about the applicant matched the gender of their photo.

After a brief break, participants saw each applicant again and indicated whether or not they had made a final hire decision in the previous part of the study. As anticipated, participants were more likely to mistakenly believe they had already hired (or rejected) applicants in the “intention” condition than those in the control condition — suggesting that we sometimes mistake having intended to do something with having actually done it.

Next, using the same process, the team showed that  this effect was more pronounced when there are physical similarities between behaviour and intention — in short, when doing something and intending to do something feel or look the same.

Participants in the high similarity condition pressed a key on their keyboard for both the “behaviour” (the definite hiring decisions) and “intention”  (the intended hiring decisions), while those in the low similarity condition enacted behaviour with a keystroke but intention mentally, simply thinking about their intention rather than logging it.

Those in the high similarity condition were more likely to confuse intention with behaviour than those in the low similarity condition, indicating that a similarity in expression may increase the odds of falsely remembering having completed a task (opening an email you intend to respond to later, for example, rather than leaving it unread or adding it to a to do list, may make you more likely to misremember having sent your response).

In the next study, participants judged some candidates by attractiveness and others by competence. As before, participants used these criteria to either register their intention to do something or actually enact behaviour.  Again, intentions were misreported as enactments far more than the other way around; similarly, misreports were far more likely within the same hiring criteria than in a different one (i.e. an intention to hire based on attractiveness was more likely to be misremembered as having actually hired the candidate based on attractiveness than as having actually hired them based on competence). As in the keystroke study, this suggests that similarities in the cognitive processes involved in behaviour and intentions are a key part of mistaken beliefs.

Mistaking intentions for behaviours, even for mundane actions, is not insignificant. Small acts  can be important in many areas of our life: the actual act of taking medication, for instance, may be routine and uninteresting, but its impact is often far from it. Results from this study suggest, however, that it’s something we may frequently misremember doing because the physical actions are so samey.

Results from a final study may indicate a fairly useful — and pretty simple — solution to the problem of misremembering behaviours: active monitoring. Participants who physically wrote down their final hiring decision or their intention to hire were less likely to misremember what they’d done. Writing things down or checking them off a list might not be failsafe — and it might not be very exciting itself — but it could be a good way to ensure that things are getting done.

Mistaking an Intention for a Behavior: The Case of Enacting Behavioral Decisions Versus Simply Intending to Enact Them

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest