A New Way to Remember: The Power of Quirky Memory Jogs

Organizations spend millions of dollars each year trying to get their employees to be less absentminded. Businesses shell out significant funds for planning software and systems. Administrators tack up signs and send out emails reminding employees to fill out their timesheets, enroll in benefits programs, or prepare for meetings. And of course, individuals personally wrestle with overcoming forgetfulness.

We have found that some of the costly digital and paper memory jogs widely used to solve the problem of forgetting could instead be replaced with a stuffed alien toy. Perhaps some explanation is in order. Bothered by our own memory failings, we wondered if connecting an intention that could easily be forgotten (such as returning a library book) with an eye-grabbing cue—such as that stuffed alien—that would be visible at the appropriate time might improve follow-through. And it does, as we report in a recent paper in Psychological Science.

The simple trick, which we refer to as “reminders through association,” can be used by managers to improve employees’ compliance with tasks, marketers to increase sales, and busy professionals to remember to feed the goldfish or check in on a sick friend. The reminders-through-association hack works by linking our intentions—memories that we need to recall in the future—with a cue that will be waiting for us, right when we need it.

Take the case of a café that is trying to enable its customers to remember to use coupons when they make their next visit.  We studied whether the reminders-through-association approach could help with this challenge by posting our research assistants outside a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass. for seven hours on a Tuesday.  The café was busy, and our assistants passed out coupons promising $1 off their purchase on Thursday (two days in the future) to about 500 customers. Each coupon was attached to a flyer. Half of the customers received a flyer that said, “When you see the cash register on Thursday, remember to use this coupon.” The other half received a the same flyer plus an additional flyer featuring a photo of a colorful stuffed alien and told them that the alien would be sitting on the cash register on Thursday to remind them to use their coupon.

The alien did his job: Two days later, 24% of customers who were told to look for him remembered to use their coupon, while only 17% of those who simply were told to look for the cash register did.  That’s a 41% increase in the fraction of customers who remembered to use the coupon!

Why did the alien serve as a better memory jog than the cash register? For a reminder-through-association to work well it needs to be distinctive—something out of place that will catch the eye. To remind yourself to mail a stack of bills in the morning, for example, you might put a tennis ball on top of them. If you want to remember to get a flu shot in the fall at your local CVS, try telling yourself you’ll get one on the first day you see Halloween candy on sale there. And to remind employees to fill out the sign-up sheet for the holiday party, place it next to the brand new large snow globe on the receptionist’s desk and let people know to sign-up when they see the distinctive new tchotchke.


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