Home > Memory > Did I leave ______ on? : Self Doubt and Metamemory with Undergrads and Clinical OCD Participants

Did I leave ______ on? : Self Doubt and Metamemory with Undergrads and Clinical OCD Participants

It’s a Saturday afternoon and you bunker down on your sofa to watch a marathon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Your mom calls and asks you to check if she left the stove on. The average person may remember already checking the stove that morning and can feel confident that their memory is correct. “All is good mom— No need to get off this couch and check.”  An individual with OCD (a mental disorder that impairs daily life via obsessions and compulsions) is mostly likely going to go to the kitchen and double-check even though they have this feeling of knowing that they had previously checked it. Thoughts such as “maybe I actually checked the stove yesterday instead of this morning” may cross your mind; you will ultimately be forced to get off the couch and check the stove to appease mom (and your own anxieties).

This example highlights the self-doubt that OCD can create. When you think about people with OCD, you may refer to the classic germaphobe that performs compulsive hand-washing rituals. No matter how many times they wash their hands, the “clean” feeling is never achieved. People with OCD whose obsessions revolved repeated checking also lack a feeling of satisfaction or resolution—the stove doesn’t feel like it was off after the first check or maybe you remembered the first check incorrectly and thus the vicious cycle of compulsive checking begins. As repeated checking persists, recollection shifts from “remembering” (having exact accounts of when/how an event happened) to “knowing” (having a general idea of what happened).

It is suggested that repeated checking in OCD patients is derived from feelings of personal responsibility and self-perpetuating doubt. You would think that repeating the same events over and over again would improve your memory of those actions and your confidence in completing those actions, but the opposite is the case. The behavior of repetitive checking becomes a breeding ground for further confusion and lack of confidence because of the interfering nature multiple checks can have on your memory. The more times you check something, the fuzzier the “remembering” of the latest check becomes, thus the rise of self-perpetuating doubt.

A recent study conducted by Radomsky and colleagues (2014) aimed to investigate how repeated checking of a functional stove impacts metamemory and memory accuracy, specifically in clinical OCD patients whose obsessions revolves around self-checking. The level of confidence, vividness, and detail of a memory is known as metamemory. The amount of detail recalled correctly from the latest case of checking is known as memory accuracy. For example, if you could recall the last 3 knobs you checked on a stove after a set of repetitive actions such as turning on/off and checking all knobs, then your memory accuracy is pretty decent.

The experiment was designed to answer the following: Does repeated checking of the same item result in lower metamemory and memory accuracy? If so, what are the differences in metamemory and memory accuracy for OCD versus non-OCD participants?

Participants with and without OCD were trained on how to use the laboratory stove and sink by turning stove knobs on/off and turning the hot/cold faucets fully/halfway. For the initial checking trial with the stove, participants were left alone in the kitchen and given instructions by the experimenter via intercom. Instructions included commands such as “turn on”, “turn off”, and “check.”  Participants then completed an assessment of memory accuracy by marking off on a diagram of the stove the last three knobs checked. They also completed an assessment of metamemory by rating their confidence, vividness, and detail of the latest trial on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (extremely). These assessments measured the baseline values of metamemory and memory accuracy. Participants were then randomly assigned to either work with the stove or sink for several trials. Working with the sink was considered the “filler” task, and basically acted as the control group of the experiment. Working with the stove was what represented the repeated checking group. After participants either worked with the stove or sink for several trials, everyone had to complete one more trial with the stove. They were then assessed on how well their metamemory and memory accuracy was for this last trial.

The results showed that metamemory and memory accuracy did decrease for those in the repeated checking group. In other words, those who handled the stove for all trials correctly marked the diagram of the stove less than those who checked the sink and were also lower in their confidence/detail/vividness of the last stove checking. The repetitive actions with the same appliance created a lot of proactive interference for “remembering” the final trial. Those who were in the sink condition had less interference when it came time for the final trial because they were occupied with a different/unrelated task. The differences between the OCD and non-OCD group were negligible.

Researchers were then interested if these results would change if the operation of the sink was posed as the repeated-checking condition, rather than the operation of the stove. It was suggested that there may be differences in results because of the differing consequences a stove and sink have if left turned on. In other words, what is going to freak you out more?—the potential of your house being on fire or a flood in the kitchen? These concerns are the kind that would make you grudgingly turn around the car and go check. But does the source of concern impact our level of self doubt or is the source negligible? Results support that there is no difference in metamemory or memory accuracy between repeated sink or stove checking. But, it is important to note that this second experiment did not include participants with OCD and only involved undergrad nonclinical participants. This limitation was recognized and though it was suggested that OCD participants would experience the same extent of metamemory and memory accuracy losses as nonclinical participants (due to the result of the first experiment), further research is needed to test OCD participants on sink checking. Overall, the findings suggest that the source of checking is negligible and does not seem to impact changes in metamemory or memory accuracy.

This kind of research is important because of the practical implications in OCD therapy it offers. A better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the disorder and the operational components of obsessive behavior will help intervention methods. In addition, this kind of research allows us to question if repeated reflection is what feeds self-doubt and ultimately repeated checking. Answers to these broader propositions may help those with not only OCD, but those with other anxiety disorders, on how to best cope with obsessive thoughts and rumination. So the next time you wonder if you left the stove on or if you fed the dog, go ahead and check once, but remember that extensively obsessing over these tasks will only perpetuate feelings of distress and will leave you in a vicious cycle of self-doubt.

To read the full article, click here.

To read a cog blog about how age impacts metamemory click here.


Radomsky, A. S., Dugas, M. J., Alcolado, G. M., & Lavoie, S. L. (2014). When more is less: Doubt, repetition, memory, metamemory, and compulsive checking in OCD. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 59, 30-39.


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  1. October 19th, 2015 at 14:38 | #1

    This post is particularly interesting to me because the main conclusion of the post and the study is counterintuitive – you’d think that as you check and double-check that you’ve turned the stove off, you’d be more confident that it is indeed turned off. Instead, every time you check, you’re reigniting self-doubt.
    Dylan Nisky’s post in November 2013 supports the related idea that the accuracy of your memory for a past action is just as important as your metamemory, or assessment of your memory. As suggested by Sarah’s post, when it comes to individuals with OCD, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they remember that they turned the stove off – they may think that they did turn the stove off the first/second/third time they checked – but instead what matters is their confidence in the memory. In other words, I’m interpreting their thought processes as going: I remember turning the stove off, but I am not so confident in my memory, so I’ll check again. Metamemory drives the individuals to check the stove.
    What I find peculiar is that there wasn’t any significant difference between checking by control individuals versus OCD individuals in the experiment. I’d have inferred that individuals with OCD would have worse metamemory than the control individuals, which would be a reason why individuals with OCD check things more often – self-doubt due to a weak metamemory would be a mediator for OCD in a way. I’m also surprised that the experimenters did not analyze the amount of times the individuals wanted to check the stove in order to compare the effects of repetition rituals from OCD and the accuracy of metamemory. Nevertheless, the experiment has great implications for OCD treatment and self-doubt remedies.

  2. October 19th, 2015 at 16:35 | #2

    This was a very interesting post that I found particularly of interest because we recently discussed OCD in Abnormal class. As Sarah mentioned, understanding the etiology of the disorder is really important in OCD therapy. Understanding that there are cognitive factors behind compulsions may help people conceptualize and further understand their diagnosis.

    The research into the effect of the source of the checking reminded me something we discussed in Abnormal in regards to the diagnostic criteria of OCD. Included in the OCD diagnosis is the fact that compulsions are not associated in any realistic way to the feared event, or that they are excessive. This leads me to believe that OCD patients would also show no difference between repeated sink and stove checking.

    In Cognitive class we discussed proactive interference as being an important cause of forgetting. The proactive interference mentioned in this article is consistent with the proactive interference Keppel and Underwood thought was happening with the Brown-Peterson task. In this task aimed to test the duration of short-term memory participants are presented with 3 consonants that do not form any meaningful patterns and then are to count backwards during a delay of 0-18 seconds. Finally participants do a serial recall. Previous researchers had subjects participate in many trials so Keppel and Underwood had participants do only one trial to eliminate interference and found that other researchers had been overestimating the rate of forgetting. Further research by Waugh and Norman (1965) confirmed that interference is responsible for most forgetting by using the probe recognition task. In this task participants are show a list of numbers then a probe and are asked to recall what number was after the probe. The number of intervening numbers was manipulated and it was found that memory was better for items at the end of the list because there was less interference. These studies support the research that repeated checking can result in decreased memory. I did not previously think of this research or the findings as important to this specific disorder and this reminds me to think more broadly about the things we learn in class and how cognitive psychology relates to so many different aspects of life!

  3. October 22nd, 2015 at 21:15 | #3

    You noted that the metamemory and memory accuracy was diminished for the repeated checkers. I wonder whether the similarities between compulsive activities influences metamemory and memory accuracy. That is, the more similar certain activities are, the worse one remembers whether one completed the activity. In Cognitive, we learned that the similarity of what one has already learns affects what one is currently trying to learn or remember. For example, in Wickens et al. (1976), participants underwent three trials where they had to remember lists of fruits. After the first trial, the participants suffered proactive interference and recalled fewer fruits correctly. However, on the forth trial, participants were given a list of words that were either similar to fruits (vegetables, flower, etc.) or very different (professions). The more different the category of the fourth trial, the bigger the release was from proactive interference.
    What is already stored in one’s memory affects what new informations gets in. So perhaps individuals with OCD not only suffer proactive interference from the previous instances of checking the stove, but they may suffer proactive interference from the similar instances of checking to see if the front door was locked and checking to see if the candles are blown out. Such similar activities may worsen the compulsive checking behavior.

    I also wonder whether OCD could also be affected by a decreased ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts. Non-OCD individuals are more successful at quieting anxiety about whether their hands are clean or whether the door is shut and this may be because they are more successful at maintaing their goals through attentional control. This attentional control both inhibits compulsive thoughts and activates pathways that create the desired action or response. Would OCD individuals perform poorly on Stroop tasks because an underlying cause is underdeveloped attentional control? It would be fascinating to investigate the attentional processes of OCD individuals.

  4. cmrowlan
    October 26th, 2015 at 22:40 | #4

    I found this post to be stimulating in the sense that it’s very relatable. I agree with Hannah Moy’s post about how the study is counter intuitive to what one would expect. Common though would prove that the more you check something the more contact and experience you have with that stimulus and thus make a stronger mental image of it. But this study proved that to be other wise as the constant checking actually creates more self doubt. To me the source of this self doubt is what really interests me. Is it derived genetically or developmentally through life span development? I also would like to see the difference in how confident someone is of performing simple, automatic tasks that require little directed attention and tasks that require high amounts of directed attention. I think both OCD and non-OCD participants would check more on low attention tasks as they thought about them for a less amount of time and thus they had less conscious memory of these tasks compared to more complex and less habitual tasks.

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