Repeated Mundane Behaviors Create False Memories of Completing the Task
Mon, April 19, 2021

Repeated Mundane Behaviors Create False Memories of Completing the Task


One of the great secrets that successful people in the world use is repetition. They accomplish their big tasks by doing frequent and repetitive actions whether they’d be in sports, music, or business. A new study has, however, found that repeated mundane behaviors, such as responding to an email or taking a daily medication, can be misremembered as done.

Authors Dolores Albarracin from the University of Illinois and colleagues told Science Daily that mundane behaviors that occur in the context of many other similar behaviors and are repeated over time may lead people to combine behaviors and intentions. As a result, it can cause one to think that they have already completed the task.

When intention and repetitive behavior are similar

Albarracin, who is a professor of psychology and marketing, explained that making plans and intentions usually enhance task execution. They are important for us to get along with other people, play our role in society, and to realize our goals. Yet, when we form an intention at the moment and it is something that we routinely do, it is best to accomplish the task while forming the intention.

For example, you say, “I’m going to sign that form now.” If you will not complete the task the moment you form that intention, you may not be able to sign the form because it can be misremembered that you have already signed it.

The experiments

The researchers conducted five experiments for their study. They aimed to create a lab-analog procedure involving repetitive, relatively simple, and similar behavior decisions to create conditions that are believed to produce a high level of error, which stems from a misattribution.

Study participants were asked to choose job candidates and either acted on that decision, which is to hire the job applicants later, or make a judgment that is not relevant to that behavior.

After a delay, researchers asked the participants to report whether they did act on their decision or just intended to do so for every job candidate they saw. Albarracin said that it was a methodology that was carefully designed to produce a high level of errors, systematically manipulate the action versus intention, and keep the irrelevant characteristics constant.

In their first two experiments, they found misreport and subsequent performance errors when controlling for guessing. The third and fourth experiments showed greater confusion when mental criteria for behavior and intention and the physical involvement were the same. In the fifth experiment, it suggests that monitoring whether a person has acted on a decision is more effective compared to monitoring intention and is highly effective in reducing errors.

What the result implies

Albarracin continued that when behavior is a routine to a person, it will look more consistent with their intentions. The result implies that people should be more aware of the possible error in their similarly trivial actions. It also has significance in the healthcare industry and other situations, where self-reporting of a following through on the action is important.

The team’s research appeared in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Significance of completing tasks

Completing tasks assigned to you is important so you don’t waste time focusing on where you were. The time spent on an unfinished task is lost time, which could have been spent on something else. Completing the tasks is also important as it reduces the likelihood of mislaying things and the possibility of pretending that you are progressing on that task when you are only procrastinating. If you complete more tasks, you feel more in control and helps you become more productive. Even if you don’t struggle completing tasks, misremembering it as already done may have life-altering and fatal consequences not just in work but life in general.



Misremembering and links between past and future

Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter shared via Harvard Gazette that misremembering can happen to all of us. For instance, we think we learned about the September 11 attacks from a radio but we only heard the news from a coworker. We remember we woke up at 7 am yesterday when it was 8 am. We can recall that a robber was tall when, in fact, he was short. These false memories can have “disastrous consequences,” Schacter said.

He said that our brains are designed to tell stories about the future. Because of its flexibility, memory is useful to us. Yet, it can also create illusions and distortions. If the memory is structured to use the past imagining the future scenario, such flexibility can lead to vulnerability. Consequently, it creates a risk of confusing the imagination, thinking that it is the reality. In settings where exactitude is important, such as in courtrooms, false memories can be disastrous.

Habits and routines

In 2019, database company Statista conducted a nationally representative survey among Hungarians who are between 18 and 59 years old. It was found that 34.4% of Hungarians had daily routines and 22% have weekly routines while 43.6% said they did not have any daily or weekly routines for themselves.



While the gist of most people’s daily routine includes eating, sleeping, working, and playing or having fun, 65% of successful people exercise first thing in the morning. Some 38% check emails or do a bit of work, 22% read a book or newspaper, practice gratitude (journaling, visualization, praying), or meditate, 20% allocate it as family time (spending time with kids or helping kids to get ready), and 4% use social media. 21 Day Hero founder Dovile Sinke reviewed over 60 successful and world-famous people for this morning routine statistics.



Meanwhile, app tester SOASTA surveyed the US smartphone owners and they found that 84% of them use any app during their morning routine, 67% open their email, 45% use the device to check the weather, 40% use it for social media, 35% read news, 12% check financial news, 11% check the traffic, 11% use shopping apps, 5% use it for public transit, and 3% for dating apps.

About 40% of people’s daily activities are performed every day in almost the same situations. While patterns help form healthy habits, Albarracin and the team’s study cautions that having an intention to complete a commonly repeated task may be misremembered as done and this intention-behavior link is essential in many domains, such as a person’s health and in making financial decisions.