select search filters
roundups & rapid reactions
before the headlines
Fiona fox's blog

expert reaction to study looking at digital devices and memory skills

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looks at digital devices and memory skills.


Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:

“It’s very important to understand that this new research isn’t directly about using smartphones, despite the top line and first paragraph of the press release.  The research paper itself makes very little mention of smartphones, and the research itself is not specifically about the use of smartphones or similar devices.

“The research is instead about a cognitive phenomenon called ‘intention offloading’.  We can all sometimes have problems in remembering to do things, having decided to do them at some point in the future.  So we might decide to buy some particular items in a shop tomorrow, or to ring up for a GP appointment as soon as the surgery opens, and I’m sure it’s not only me who forgets things like that sometimes.  We can do things like write shopping lists, stick up Post-Its to remind ourselves, set alarms on our phone or computer, and so on.  This can make it easier for us to remember to carry out our intentions.  The new study looks at whether this process of offloading intentions, by putting reminders in some external place outside our own memories, can make it easier to remember some things for which we have not stored such an external reminder.  Putting it very crudely, if you’ve reduced the effort of remembering some things by putting reminders in a shopping list, or a phone alarm, or some such, maybe the fact that you don’t have to remember those things in your head will make it easier to remember some other things for which you didn’t write reminders.

“This new research investigates this possibility, particularly in relation to remembering things of lower value after someone has set a reminder for other things of higher value.  Superficially, it may sound strange that research is being done on some aspect of how memory works that looks just like common sense – but cognitive research has found many situations where what seems to be common sense does not in fact happen, so the new research was definitely worth doing in my view.  The researchers did indeed find, from a series of experiments, that ‘offloading’ some high value intentions into an place outside people’s own memories did make it a bit easier for them to remember some other (lower value) intentions.  How far these findings persist if and when further research looks at them with different experimental tasks remains to be seen, of course, but that’s not my concern here.

“My concern is the prominence given in the press release to what smartphone use might or might not do to our human memory use.  The research paper does mention smartphones, but only to point out that a smartphone is one of the places (along with, say, a diary) where one can offload delayed intentions, and then finally in the Discussion section by pointing out that smartphones and wearable devices have “effectively unlimited” capacity for storing offloaded information, so that one needs to take into account decisions on what to store there and how to store it, in relation to its value and other aspects.

“However, the research tasks done in the experiments in the study do not directly look at what or how people store in their phones.  There would have been no reason to do that, as the research is about more fundamental aspects of memory.  It’s true that two of the three experiments were carried out on hand-held electronic devices (touchscreen tablets) – the third was done using web browsers on the participants’ home computers.  But in each case the experimental tasks didn’t look anything like what one might do in setting a reminder or putting a shopping list on a phone.  The reminders were set in the same computer-game-type task as the decision tasks that the participants had to perform – maybe that’s a bit like writing a shopping list on your phone and then using the same app where you stored the list to do an online shop, but the details are very different, and the experimental tasks are very unlike having a phone alarm tell you to ring up your GP for an appointment and then making that call separately.

“So I don’t think these findings tell us anything direct about smartphones and human memory.  They do contribute to a framework of knowledge that might lead to clearer understandings directly about smartphones, but that’s indirect.  In a way, this is a bit like one of those studies in biomedicine, where the results of research on lab animals or cell cultures may well relate to whether some substance can cause harm or benefit to human health, but one can’t be at all certain without some further work that probably involves humans directly.”



‘Value-Based Routing of Delayed Intentions Into Brain-Based Versus External Memory Stores’ by Dawa Dupont et al. was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General at 20:00 UK time on Monday 1 August 2022.

DOI: 10.1037/xge0001261



Declared interests

Prof Kevin McConway: “I am a Trustee of the SMC and a member of its Advisory Committee.  My quote above is in my capacity as an independent professional statistician.”

in this section

filter RoundUps by year

search by tag