Everyday memory failures
Research on memory is almost exclusively conducted in the laboratory, with the implicit assumption that findings will generalize to everyday life. Although this research has served psychologists quite well for a long time and has resulted in numerous interesting and important findings, it means that we still know very little about the nature and frequency of memory errors that occur in everyday life. These errors take a variety of forms and may involve forgetting future tasks (e.g., feeding your pet, or buying foreign currency), past information (e.g., where you put your keys or the name of your neighbour) or lapses of attention or absent-mindedness (e.g., forgetting why you went in a room or putting milk in a cupboard instead of fridge).
Studying these errors is very important, especially in older adults who often complain about their memory getting worse or in people with traumatic brain injury, with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease who do experience memory and attentional problems in everyday life. Despite prevalence of memory errors in these people and in population in general, there is relatively little research on everyday memory errors. In addition, almost all research in this area is based on variety of everyday memory and attention questionnaires which ask people to assess the frequency and magnitude of their problems long time after they have occurred. There are several problems with such retrospective assessment and the validity of results obtained with such questionnaire and interview methods has been questioned.
In our study on memory and ageing, funded by Economic and Social research Council, we asked our young and old participants to tell us about their most recent everyday memory failure to minimize the bias and errors that are characteristic of memory questionnaires. This initial study resulted in an interesting age pattern reported in Kvavilashvili et al. (2009). We are now following up these findings by developing paper and electronic diary methods for recording everyday memory errors as and when they occur in daily life. Andrew Laughland is currently piloting these methods on people with and without Parkinson’s Disease, as part of his PhD research programme. We have also plans, subject to external funding, to carry out large-scale diary studies on everyday memory failures in young and older adults (collaboration with Matthias Kliegel, Switzerland and Peter Rendell, Australia) and in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (collaboration with Agnieszka Niedźwieńska, Poland). Initial piloting of methods is successful and indicates that participants are complying with instructions and recording their everyday memory failures over a 28-day period.