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What was I saying? Oh, right, Absent-mindedness…

It’s a Saturday night. You come home early to catch your favorite TV show. You’re in such a hurry that you throw your keys somewhere carelessly. When it’s time to go out, you can’t remember where you put your keys. It’s not at the regular spot where you usually place your keys. It takes a long time for you to find them. Does this seem familiar? When things like this happen, you might wonder if there’s something wrong with your mind. In fact, it is a common phenomenon called absent-mindedness.


Absent-mindedness is a cognitive bias that happens when people “zone out” and make mistakes in daily life (Broadbent, Cooper, FitzGerald, & Parkes, 1982). The mistakes can be anything related to a lack of attention, e.g., walking in a room and forgetting why you came in, dropping something unintentionally, or throwing your phone in a trash can and keeping the coffee cup (which happened to me once). Absent-mindedness is where attention and memory come together, even though they seem to be two separate things.

How is absent-mindedness related to attention? Before answering this question, we need to know that our attention has a limited capacity (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Biondi, Behrends, & Moore, 2015). One theory suggests that when our limited attentional resource is occupied, the rate of absent-mindedness may increase (Fisher & Hood, 1987). This means that if you are talking to a friend while walking down the street and paying little attention to your surroundings, you might end up bumping into someone if that person is being absent-minded as well!

Absent-mindedness due to the lack of attention can also happen in shops, which possibly causes unintentional shopliftings (Reason & Lucas, 1984). For example, as Reason and Lucas (1984) mentioned in their study, a man went into a store to buy a pair of sunglasses and some toilet papers. Before this, he had broken up with his girlfriend. He selected a pair of sunglasses and put them in his pocket automatically. When he checked out with other items, he forgot that he had those sunglasses in his pocket. Apparently, his limited attentional resource was heavily engaged by his breakup other than shopping, which leads to his unintentional shoplifting. Would stressful events like this increase our chance of being absent-minded? After analyzing hundreds of examples, Reason and Lucas (1984) suggested that stresses influence attentional control. This means that the more stress you are suffering from, the more likely you would involuntarily fix your attention on the event that causes the stress (Reason & Lucas, 1984).

Now we know that absent-mindedness has something to do with attention and its limited capacity. How about its relationship with memory? Interestingly, absent-mindedness is one of the “seven sins of memory” (Murray, 2003). Attention plays an important role in memory – we forget because we weren’t paying attention in the first place. To understand the relationship between attention and memory better, we should first talk about how memory is formed. Storing information in memory is called encoding which requires attention. If you don’t direct attention to it or just attend to it superficially, the information won’t get encoded, and you probably will not remember it (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2015). Going back to our example at the beginning, you can’t remember where you put your keys because you did not pay attention to their location when you threw them there. If you successfully encoded the information, it will go into long-term memory, and you are more likely to remember it.




Absent-minded errors can occur at retrieving memories as well. For example, you drive past the store on your way home and it fails to remind you to get groceries. The store did not trigger your attention, so you forget about your grocery shopping plan. Evidence has shown that people who self-reported as absent-minded did worse in prospective memory tasks, implying that attention plays a role in retrieving prospective memories (i.e., memory for future intentions like meeting someone or getting groceries) (Mäntylä, 2003).This is an interesting theory suggesting that prospective memory can also account for some absent-minded mistakes (Cornish, 2000).



So far, we’ve covered how absent-mindedness may happen. A quick sum up – when you are not paying attention to the task at hand, the memory is not encoded and stored, which means you’ll have a hard time recalling the task. Since we’ve learned about the relationship between attention and memory, you may be wondering what strategies we could use to alleviate the effect of absent-mindedness (even though we can’t make it go away). The levels of processing theory suggests that the strength of a memory trace is determined by how the original information was processed (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). This means that how well you will remember something has to do with how deep you processed it. For example, if you want to remember the word “cat,” you should first pay full attention to this word, process it semantically (i.e., a cat is an animal that can meow), and probably connect it with your pet cat or a cat you are familiar with. Testing and keyword mnemonic are also effective study strategies. Here’s some more useful ways to adapt to absent-mindedness:




Congratulations! You’ve come so far and learned a lot about absent-mindedness –how absent-mindedness happens, what factors influence it, why it is an error related to both attention and memory, and how you could adapt to it. Next time when you forget where you put your car keys because you were watching TV, you may realize and think “Aha! That’s absent-mindedness, a cognitive bias!” You may also notice that you see absent-mindedness everywhere, which can lead to another cognitive bias – frequency illusion.



Broadbent, D. E., Cooper, P. F., FitzGerald, P., & Parkes, K. R. (1982). The Cognitive Failures Questionnaire (CFQ) and its correlates. British Journal of Clinical Psychology21(1), 1-16. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8260.1982.tb01421.x

Cornish, I. M. (2000). Factor structure of the Everyday Memory Questionnaire. British Journal of Psychology, 91(3), 427-438. doi:10.1348/000712600161916

Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671-684. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(72)80001-X

Chua, S. (2015, May 28). Imagining adaptations for absent-mindedness [Digital image]. Retrieved April 26, 2018, from http://sachachua.com/blog/2015/05/leaning-into-absent-mindedness/

Fisher, S., & Hood, B. M. (1987). The stress of the transition to university: A longitudinal study of psychological disturbance, absent-mindedness and vulnerability to homesickness. British Journal of Psychology78(4), 425-441. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1987.tb02260.x

Reason, J., & Lucas, D. (1984). Absent-mindedness in shops: Its incidence, correlates and consequences. British Journal of Clinical Psychology23(2), 121-131. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8260.1984.tb00635.x

Mäntylä, T. (2003). Assessing absentmindedness: Prospective memory complaint and impairment in middle-aged adults. Memory & Cognition, 31(1), 15-25. doi:10.3758/BF03196078

Murray, B. (2003, October). The seven sins of memory. Retrieved April 26, 2018, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct03/sins.aspx

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D. L., Biondi, F., Behrends, A. A., & Moore, S. M. (2015). Cell-phone use diminishes self-awareness of impaired driving. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(2), 617-623. doi:10.3758/s13423-015-0922-4

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