We've all run upstairs to get something, only to arrive and realise we've forgotten what we went up there for. But just how common are these moments of absent-mindedness? According to a new study by Icelandic psychologists, healthy people commit an average of 6.4 such lapses or “action slips” a week.
Maria Jonsdottir and colleagues asked 189 healthy participants aged between 19 and 60 to keep a diary of their lapses for a week. Of a total of 1217 “doh” moments, the most common types of error were what the psychologists dubbed “storage failures”, when action plans were forgotten, as in the example above.
Other errors included: “sub-routine failures” when components of an action were performed in the wrong order or switched for something else – for example, going out to buy coffee but coming back with all kinds of things bar coffee; “discrimination failures”, for example a man not realising he has put on a ladies jacket instead of his own; and “programme assembly failures”, for example, throwing a toy in the rubbish and putting the baby's used nappy on the shelf.
More errors were made on weekdays than at weekends, especially between the hours of 12 and 8. Surprisingly perhaps, younger participants made more errors than older participants.
The Icelandic researchers said establishing how common such lapses are in healthy people could help alleviate the concerns of those who have suffered a head injury or whiplash and believe they are making more mistakes than usual, despite performing normally on formal neuropsychological tests. In particular if patients completed their own diary of absent-mindedness, this could potentially “demonstrate that the number of actual memory lapses is smaller than estimated by the patient, and that they are not any different or more frequent than among healthy individuals,” the researchers said.
Jonsdottir, MK., Adolfsdottir, S., Cortez, R.D., Gunnarsdottir, M. & Gustafsdottir, A.H. (In Press). A diary study of action slips in healthy individuals. The Clinical Neuropsychologist.