If you use alerts on your phone or sticky notes on your desk to remind yourself to complete a task, researchers have found an easier, more effective way to trigger your memory . . . and it involves an alien doll.
Calendar alerts, notes, and even the old-fashioned string-around-the-finger work occasionally, but they don’t always provide the reminder at a time when you need it most, and they’re so common that they are easily overlooked or ignored. A new report published in Psychological Science finds that using reminders by association is a better method for remembering.
In a study conducted at the Wharton School, participants were asked to complete an hourlong computer task. They were told a donation to a food bank would be made as a result of their participation if they picked up a paper clip when they collected their payment. One group was told an elephant statue would be sitting on the counter where they collected their payment as a reminder to pick up a paper clip, and the second group was simply thanked for their participation. Seventy-four percent of students who saw the elephant statue remembered to take a paper clip, compared to only 42% of those who didn’t receive a cue.
In another experiment, customers at a coffee shop were given a coupon that would be valid two days later. Some customers were told that a stuffed alien doll would be sitting near the cash register to remind them to use their coupon. Of the customers who were given the cue, 24% remembered to use their coupon, while 17% of the customers who received no cue took advantage of the savings.
“Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur,” writes Todd Rogers, study coauthor and associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Reminder through association is an effective no-cost, low-effort way to remember tasks that tend to fall through the cracks in daily life. It works because you don’t have to worry about technology failing, and you can build in an association reminder in the right moment and at the right time, says Katherine Milkman, study coauthor and associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School.
“The technique is especially effective when you’re falling asleep and suddenly remember you need to do something the next day,” she says. “Maybe you need to mail a check. You can hope you remember it, or you can create a cue for yourself in your mind.”
Think ahead about something the next day that might be out of the ordinary, suggests Milkman. Brushing your teeth, for example, is something you do every day and would be less likely to catch your attention, but maybe there’s going to be a party at work.
“Tell yourself, ‘When I see everyone gather in the conference room, I’ll remember that I need to mail the check,’” says Milkman.
Another way to use an association reminder is to put something unusual in your path. While a lot of people leave themselves a note, our lives are often too cluttered, and it’s easy to tune these things out or have them blend into the background. Milkman uses that alien doll as her cue.
“It has to be something out of the ordinary; something that makes you ask, ‘Why in the heck is that there?’” she says. “Attaching a reminder in your brain to a certain moment or object will trigger the memory. It forces us to think back and ask, ‘Where did this come from?’ The more distinctive it is, the better it works.”