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What is prospective memory and why does it matter?

Prospective memory is the ability to remember to do things in the future. This is the difference of types and examples.

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Heights
September 19, 2022
5 min read

In the past two decades, there has been an increasing interest in the study of prospective memory. Although it was first studied in the 1960s, only recently have researchers come to understand how important it is to everyday functioning.

Article breakdown

What is prospective memory and why does it matter?

Prospective memory is crucial as it allows us to remember what we're supposed to do in certain situations at a certain time. The following article will explore some examples and explanations about prospective memory and how it works so well for us.

What is prospective memory?

Prospective memory is the ability to remember to do things in the future. It's usually defined as the ability to remember and carry out a task or activity that you have planned for yourself, like remembering to take your medication.

According to researchers, prospective memory helps us organize and manage our lives by setting goals and following through with them. By definition, it is self-regulation—the ability to monitor, control, and change one's behavior based on internal cues.

Prospective memory psychology definition

In psychological studies, prospective memory is defined as 'the ability to remember to carry out intended actions in the future' (Brandimonte, Einstein, & McDaniel, 1996; Kerns, 2000). It's a type of long-term memory that requires you to be aware of your surroundings and think about what you need to do next.

It’s different from short-term and working memory because it requires more effort and planning. Whereas working memory can only hold a few items at once, prospective memory allows us to keep track of multiple tasks over a period of time.

Prospective remembering can also be distinguished from episodic, or autobiographical, recall (the ability to remember events). When we recall an event or series of events, it's usually because those memories have been cued by some sort of cue; this might be prompted by sensory stimuli—like seeing something similar happen again—or by bringing up related thoughts on our own (e.g., “Remembering our trip to Disney World will remind me that I need an umbrella today”).

What causes prospective memory?

In order to understand this, let's take a closer look at how memory works in general. There are two types of memory: short-term and long-term. Short-term memories are remembered for only a few seconds, minutes or hours (depending on what you're trying to remember). Longer-term memories can last from months up until decades.

The way that our brains store information about the past differs depending on what type of information we're memorising: conversational speech tends not to be stored as well as facts; visual images usually fade after just seconds unless they are supplemented with verbal support; auditory stimuli (what you hear) can be remembered longer than visual ones but still tend not have much staying power beyond 30 minutes without rehearsal.

Prospective memories occur from cues that suggest the future, such as a friend telling you about an event in the next few days or your calendar alerting you that it's time to leave for work. Prospective memory also relies on our ability to form plans and set goals—which means that people who have difficulty with these skills may have trouble remembering to do things they've promised themselves they'd do.

What are the three types of prospective memory?

  1. Event-based prospective memory

    involves remembering to do something in relation to an event. For example, driving past the store cues the remembrance that you're out of milk and need to pick it up on your way home.

  2. Time-based prospective memory

    involves remembering to do something at a specific time—like wake up for work every day or go for a run at noon every Thursday.

  3. Activity-based prospective memory

    involves planning ahead for a future event that's not necessarily tied to an exact date or deadline (e.g., "I'll start looking for new jobs next month").

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What are prospective memory examples?

Here are some more examples of prospective memory and the types that fit into each category:

Event-based prospective memory

  • Remembering to message the friend when you meet the friend.

  • Taking your medication when you eat lunch.

Time-based prospective memory

  • Remembering to attend a meeting at a certain time

  • Calling your friend back during their birthday week rather than just waiting until the next week.

  • Noticing your anniversary is coming up, and remember to pick up flowers

Activity-based prospective memory

  • Remembering to take out the trash after you cook dinner.

  • Getting up from your desk before leaving work and remembering an errand you need to run before going home.

So what is prospective memory and why is it important?

To recap, prospective memory is the ability to remember to do things at a future time. It's important because it helps us to plan and organise our lives, and plays an active role in everyday tasks like remembering where we put our keys or whether we've paid the gas bill.

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