Absent-mindedness is inattentive or forgetful behaviour that can result from distractions, vagueness, blankness or zoning out.
We’ve all done it: forgotten someone’s name, where we parked the car, or left the house without the front-door key.
These are all examples of Schacter’s (1999) second sin of memory: absent-mindedness.
While the first post in the series looked at the transience of memory, how memory degrades over time, absent-mindedness occurs when we’re not really concentrating in the first place.
There are two central factors in how and why we are absent-minded.
One is how deeply we encode a memory, the other is how much attention we’re paying at the crucial moment.
Let’s look at attention first.
One of the most striking experimental demonstrations of how central attention is to absent-mindedness is seen in psychology experiments on change-blindness.
In one well-known example, participants watch a video of people passing a basketball between each other, and they are asked to count the number of passes.
I’ve been a participant in this experiment, and it worked like a treat on me.
I sat watching the video, counting the passes.
Then, after the video was finished, I was asked if I noticed anything unusual.
I was completely bemused: “What do you mean anything ‘unusual’,” I said. “I’ve just seen people passing a basketball to each other. What are you talking about?”
The experimenter smiled and set the video clip running again, but this time with no instructions to count the passes.
I watched in amazement as after about 30 seconds of people passing the basketball, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks right through the centre of the scene, stops, turns, looks at the camera, then turns again and walks out of shot.
The gorilla is visible for fully 5 seconds.
I didn’t notice a thing.
And I’m not alone.
In the version carried out by Simons and Chabris (1999), on average around half the people who took part didn’t notice the gorilla.
The original version of this experiment was carried out more than 30 years ago, but it still has the power to amaze (Neisser & Becklen, 1975).
The door study
Another well-known demonstration of how absent-minded we can be is the ‘door study’.
Here unwitting students are asked by an experimenter for directions.
While they are talking, two men carrying a door walk between the experimenter and the student.
Also hiding behind the door is another person who swaps places with the original experimenter and carries on the conversation with the student.
The student is now continuing the conversation with someone completely different.
Do they notice?
Like the gorilla experiment, only about half the students notice that they were actually talking to a different person.
Another failure of attention.
Memory encoding: depth of processing
The second element vital to absent-mindedness is the depth at which we process information.
This is demonstrated by a classic experiment carried out by Craik and Tulving (1975).
They set about testing the strength of memory traces created using three different levels of processing:
- Shallow processing: participants were shown a word and asked to think about the font it was written in.
- Intermediate processing: participants were shown a word and asked…
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