November 15, 2004
Minds Better Remember Initial Responses To Situations

Be careful what you choose to learn first.

Nov. 11, 2004 No matter how hard we try to change our behaviors, it's the old ways that tend to win out over time, especially in situations where we're rushed, stressed or overworked, suggests a new study of human memory from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Our study confirms that the responses we learn first are those that remain strongest over time," says Larry Jacoby, Ph.D., a professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and co-author of the study.

The study, titled "Which Route to Recovery? Controlled Retrieval and Accessibility Bias in Retroactive Interference," appears in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society. The research was conducted at Washington University by Jacoby and two other psychologists: Cindy Lustig, now at the University of Michigan, and Alex Konkel, now at the University of Illinois.


Participants in the study first learned one way of responding to a cue word (e.g., "Say 'cup' when you see 'coffee' "), and then later learned another way (e.g., "Now say 'mug' when you see 'coffee' "). They were given memory tests both immediately after learning the words, and the day after. Some people were told to control their memory and give only the first response ('cup'). Others were told to just give whichever response came automatically to mind.

Those controlling their responses did a good job of giving only the first response on both days. The interesting results were for the people who responded automatically, giving whichever response came to mind. On the first day, their answers were split evenly between the two possibilities. However, on the second day, they gave the first response ('cup') much more often than the second response ('mug'). The second response seemed to fade from memory, while the first response grew even stronger than it had been on the first day.

In their study, the researchers sought to take a new look at why old habits seem to prevail over our attempts to change our behavior. Their findings suggest that even though the strength of an old habit may fade over time, our memory for it will be stronger then any new good intentions that succeed it.

This helps to explan why people too often revert to practicing old bad habits when they are trying to follow newer and better habits. One practical suggestion comes from this report: If you are going to learn two behaviors that you will use to respond to some situation and you think you'll be better off doing one of the two behaviors more often then learn that behavior first.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 November 15 03:11 AM  Brain Memory

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