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Do You Ever Say You’re Going To Do Something And Never End Up Doing It?


Have you ever wondered why when you plan to do something beforehand, you usually end up getting it done? For example, for something as minuscule as taking out the trash – the act of reminding yourself to do so or envisioning yourself taking out the trash (maybe don’t envision it…) is proven to help you complete tasks. This is called an implementation intention (II), i.e. the act of specifying when, where, and how you will perform a specific task or action. To carry out an II, you use an if-then structure, such as “If it rains, I will put on my raincoat.” The formation of II’s is confirmed to improve prospective memory, which is the ability to remember to perform a specific action at an intended time. As Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen write in their article (2013), “Successful goal pursuit requires solving both of two subsequent tasks: first, strongly committing to goals, and then, effectively implementing them.” However, what cognitive processes do you need to act on an II, and can people of all ages and conditions exhibit excellent prospective memory?

Before I explain the study of II’s, we must first go over how working memory works. Working memory helps us complete complex cognitive tasks and is involved with storing images, language, and concepts. Working memory task require manipulation of the things we store in our minds. It is composed of four parts: the phonological loop stores and processes verbal and auditory information, the visuo-spatial sketchpad maintains visual information, the episodic buffer maintains information from the other components and integrates it with representations from long-term memory, and the central executive which regulates the flow of information between all of the components. For more on working memory along with a helpful diagram, click here.

Now that we have found out about working memory, we can dive into the II experiment and its results. Many psychologists have researched II’s using laboratory or computer tasks(Burkard et al., 2013, Chasteen et al., 2001, McFarland and Glisky, 2011, Schnitzspahn and Kliegel, 2009, and Zimmerman and Meier, 2009). Their results showed that II’s were effective for participants aged 60-75 but ineffective for those ages 75-90. However, these studies did not focus on any older adults with cognitive deficiencies. In their article, Burkard et al. (2014) researched the correlation between working memory and the efficacy of II’s in older adults with cognitive issues. They tested three groups of participants: older adults who received a diagnosis of dementia, a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and those with no diagnosis. The question that they sought to answer was if cognitive resources were required to effectively carry out II’s, and if so, what resources were necessary.


Research indicates that efficacy of II’s relies on automatic processes, which are preserved in individuals with MCI and early dementia (Adam et al., 2005, McDaniel et al., 2008, Brandstätter et al., 2001, Lengfelder and Gollwitzer, 2001). They say that to act on an II, you don’t actually have to tap into your cognitive resources. Some research even finds no relation between working memory and the effectiveness of II’s (McFarland and Glisky, 2011). However, recent studies have confirmed that when a prospective memory task was performed under high cognitive demands, II’s were merely as effective as basic instructions (McDaniel and Scullin, 2010), meaning that both automatic and some controlled processes are required for acting on II’s.

Why does this matter? It means that any grandparents you know actually have to have functioning working memory and the ability to use some cognitive resources to act on their intentions. Let’s say your grandfather needs to take certain pills every morning. Working memory declines as you age according to what Elizabeth Zelinski says here, so what if your grandfather forgets to take his pills? Problems like this can occur all the time with older adults, and have as small an impact as forgetting to tie one’s shoe or forgetting a family member or friend’s birthday to something as important as forgetting medicine. A sad fact is that prospective memory issues occur frequently with aging adults and detrimentally affect their ability to act on their intentions. Prospective memory difficulties are especially prevalent in individuals with dementia and MCI.

In their experiment, they recruited 45 older adults who had normal or corrected-to-normal vision and hearing and a mastery of the French (native) language. Their sample consisted of 14 individuals with dementia and eight individuals with MCI. Participants were randomly assigned to either an II group or a standard instruction group. They gave each participant four prospective memory tasks in 60 and 90 minute sessions and measured completion of the tasks. After the tasks, they gave to each participant a Mini-Mental state examination and found that lower age and higher cognitive functioning were directly correlated with higher prospective memory scores. The conclusion? Working memory abilities are necessary for II’s to be effective.


What does this mean for you? Regardless of the fact that you or your grandparents probably do not have MCI or dementia, it is clear that working memory abilities decline as you get older. II’s require working memory, so get your grandparents to start training their brains to avoid fatal mistakes on their part! As mentioned by Brain Facts, attention and working memory are closely related, however improving attention does not necessarily improve working memory. So far, promising methods to improve working memory are brain training with programs such as Lumosity, medication, and general brain stimulation. However, working on getting your grandparents to make more implementation intentions can prove to be extremely effective depending on their current cognitive health. For individuals with severely impaired working memory, implementation intentions are not the best way to improve their prospective memory, but for individuals with slight difficulty in prospective memory tasks, implementation intention practice will significantly decrease their struggle with completing their goals.

For more on the problems of working memory in individuals with dementia, click here

Literature Cited

Burkard, C., Gold, G., Rochat, L., Van der Linden, A-C. J., Van der Linder, M. (2014). Is working memory necessary for implementation intentions to enhance prospective memory in older adults with cognitive problems? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 3(1)37-43.

Gollwitzer, P.M., Oettingen, G. (2013). Implementation Intentions. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. 1043-48. New York: Springer.

Sherman, Carl. (2011). Why Working Memory May Fade. The Dana Foundation. <http://www.dana.org/News/Details.aspx?id=43176>

Voytek, Bradley. (2013). How can we enhance working memory? BrainFacts.org. <http://blog.brainfacts.org/2013/05/how-can-we-enhance-working-memory/#.VIXifGTF8mU>

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