Top 7 Memory Flaws & How They Affect Your Work

Jul 15, 2011
7 Min Read

A few years back, Harvard University psychology professor, Daniel Schacter, published an article called The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. In it, Schacter used information from several research studies to organize the fallibility of our memory into seven broad categories.  I believe knowing how our minds work can be powerful tool in self-awareness and increasing our own productivity as well as improving our relationships with others. With that in mind, here are the seven sins of memory, and how they affect us in the workplace:


What it is: Over time, we forget details of events, and sometimes entire events.

Implications for your career: Consider this: What did you do two days ago? You can probably name a few things. What did you do one year and two days ago? More than likely, you have no idea. You will forget your accomplishments over time and you will forget the praise you have received over time. Keep a running list of them and update your resume or CV regularly.


What it is: When you are not paying attention fully in the moment, you’ll forget bits of information later.

Why it matters at work: These very normal lapses in attention happen to us all, especially if we are multitasking. That is understandable. However, they often result in you forgetting to do things, which is not excusable. If this happens once or twice, people will start to think of you as unreliable and question whether they can count on you. Write things down at meetings, keep a running list of action items, and take a few minutes to review your calendars and to-do lists at the start and end of each day.


What it is: Knowledge exists in your mind, but you cannot seem to recall it at the moment.

How it happens: We’ve all forgotten the name of an acquaintance at one time or another or had the tip-of-the-tongue experience. Usually this happens with words you haven’t used in a long time or information that wasn’t learned very well in the first place. Usually, it’s not a big deal. But sometimes it can happen at the worst of times, such as when you are put on the spot with a question during a presentation.


What it is: The correct memory exists, but you confuse a detail with a different context, person, or location.

How it affects workplace relationships: The misattribution error is a common source for conflict. You and your coworker work on a project that is a big hit, but then he or she mistakenly takes the credit for your idea even though it was you who thought of it and initiated it. They’re not trying to steal the limelight; it might truly be that they honestly thought they were the one who thought of it. Another scenario might be that your boss promises you a raise of $x next year, but now there is dispute about the exact number.


What it is: False memories are created about things that never occurred.

Suggestibility in the workplace: Memory distortions can occur due to repetitive misinformation. This is more likely to happen if the source of the misinformation is someone with high credibility. Within limits, this is sometimes called good marketing, but when it gets out of control there is potential for ethical scandals. Often, these things start with lying to yourself.


What it is: What we know now (and didn’t back then) distorts our memories.

How it affects your management style: As we get older, generally speaking, we learn new information every week, every month, every year. Over time, we have a lot of knowledge that we take for granted. It might even seem like common sense. We might forget that we all started at 0; that before we knew, we didn’t know. We remember our early career selves in a more positive manner: smarter, tougher, friendlier, harder-working.


What it is: Something you don’t want to remember becomes difficult to forget.

How it affects your performance: Certain information from the past, the type that we’d like to forget, sometimes pops up when we least want to think about it. You are reminded of that one time you fumbled that big presentation (never mind that it was 15 years ago) right before you have to give one. Even if it doesn’t consciously reappear, it might color our self-perceptions of our skills and abilities.

Notice that transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking are three are different types of ways of forgetting information. The last four are errors of misinformation; a memory is there but it isn’t fully correct. When was the last time an absent or incorrect memory caused problems at your workplace?

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