Prospective Memory


A Brief Introduction

Prospective memory refers to remembering to perform intended actions in the future, or simply, remembering to remember. Examples of prospective memory include: remembering to take medicine at night before going to bed, remembering to deliver a message to a friend, and remembering to pick up flowers for a significant other on an anniversary. Because a great deal of each day is spent forming intentions and acting on those intentions, it is no surprise that at least half of everyday forgetting is due to prospective memory failures (Crovitz & Daniel, 1984).

It is important to understand prospective memory not only because of the ubiquity of prospective memory demands, but also because prospective memory failures can be devastating. For example, aircraft pilots must remember to perform several actions sequentially prior to take-off and landing and failure to remember to perform any of these actions may result in injury or death. Although aircraft crew prospective memory failures rarely occur or lead to injury, Dismukes (2006) noted that almost 1/5 of major airline accidents can be attributed to prospective memory failures. Moreover, people who must remember to take medication depend upon their prospective memory for maintaining their health. In a recent Australian survey (Nelson, Reid, Ryan, Willson, & Yelland, 2006), individuals who reported to forgetting to take their blood pressure medication at least one time were significantly more likely to have a heart attack or die than individuals who did remember to take their medication. Because intention forgetting has the potential to be devastating, it is important to learn more about the strategies that improve prospective memory. To do so, a greater understanding of prospective memory must be obtained, with careful focus on how memories are retrieved. By understanding how intentions can be successfully retrieved, strategies can be formulated which will promote efficiency and functionality.

Our Research

A current debate in the prospective memory literature regards the mechanism that allows prospective memories to be retrieved. Monitoring theory argues that strategic, nonautomatic preparatory processes must be engaged before the occurrence of a target event if one is to successfully retrieve an intention (Smith, 2003; Guynn, 2003). Consequently, a prospective memory intention can only be successfully retrieved if the person monitors for his or her prospective memory cue. Furthermore, because monitoring is nonautomatic and capacity-consuming, successful prospective memory should be associated with costs (slowing or errors) on the ongoing task.

Alternatively, spontaneous retrieval theory (see McDaniel & Einstein, 2007 on publications page) argues that the intention retrieval process is much more automatic than the retrieval process described by monitoring theory. Introspectively, we experience this near-automatic process when memories “pop” into mind. Unlike the nonautomatic preparatory processes that are required to monitor, spontaneous retrieval argues that the appearance of a target can trigger remembering without incurring a cost on an ongoing task. Put simply, the idea is that an intention can be retrieved without keeping the intention in consciousness. A major goal of research in this laboratory is providing empirical support for the existence of spontaneous retrieval processes. In addition, we are very interested in the interplay between monitoring and spontaneous retrieval processes and in determining which factors lead an individual to rely on one retrieval mechanism over another (see McDaniel & Einstein, 2000 for an overview of the Multiprocess Framework). 

Another interest in this lab regards prospective memory and aging. Broadly speaking, past research is mixed regarding age differences in prospective memory; some experiments find age effects and others do not. Although these results at first seem confusing they may be understood by the multiprocess framework (McDaniel & Einstein). The multiprocess framework states that sometimes people rely on spontaneous retrieval processes and sometimes people rely on monitoring. Taken alone, this might not mean much for aging. However, according to Craik (1986) age differences arise in memory tasks that require effortful, cognitive-capacity-consuming retrieval processes to be engaged. On the other hand, age-related declines are not associated with memory tasks that encourage automatic retrieval. When applied to prospective memory, one would then expect age differences to be greatest during tasks that encourage monitoring and minimal or nonexistent in tasks that encourage reliance on spontaneous retrieval processes.  We are currently investigating this idea and preliminary findings (Einstein, Scullin, Arnold, Bishop, & McDaniel, 2006) suggest that spontaneous retrieval processes are preserved in older adults.

A third interest in this lab concerns strategies that are argued to improve prospective memory performance. One strategy that is growing in popularity is the implementation intention strategy. Implementation intentions, as described by Gollwitzer (1999), involve visualization of performance of the intended action accompanied by a clear statement that when a certain situation arises, a particular response will be made. So if you want to remember to turn off your cell phone before entering the lecture room you might visualize yourself silencing your phone while you are in the hallway as well as state “when I enter the building I will turn off my cell phone.” We are currently investigating whether implementation intentions improve prospective memory performance as well as why they would do so. One possibility is that implementation intentions bolster spontaneous retrieval processes (McDaniel, Howard, & Butler, 2008). Because spontaneous retrieval processes seem to be preserved in older adults (Einstein, Scullin, Arnold, Bishop, & McDaniel, 2006) an implementation intention strategy may be particularly helpful for improving remembering in this population.

Want to Learn More?

If you are interested in learning more see the publications page. If you would like to get involved in this lab’s prospective memory research contact principal investigator Dr. Mark McDaniel (