Forgetfulness can be fatal — Here’s why these accidents can happen to anyone

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Since 1998, just under 500 children in the United States have passed away from pediatric vehicular heatstroke because their parent or caregiver forgot them in a hot car. When many people hear about these tragedies, they react with shock and disbelief, but new research finds forgetfulness can happen to anyone — even fatal cases of forgetfulness.

In recent years, advocacy groups have even been lobbying Congress to enact laws aimed at protecting against this particular type of forgetfulness. These potential changes would require manufacturers to install certain safety mechanisms in cars. So, researchers at the University of Notre Dame set out to better understand precisely how and why this tragic kind of forgetfulness is even possible.

Nathan Rose, the William P. and Hazel B. White Assistant Professor of Brain, Behavior and Cognition in the Department of Psychology, set up this project to analyze this lapse in what researchers refer to as prospective memory, or the capacity to remember critical but routine behaviors like turning off the oven or remembering your keys.

Young adults even forget their precious phones

Prof. Rose and doctoral candidates Abigail Doolen and Andrea O’Rear designed a unique procedure for measuring if and how college students could forget their phones. Most young adults, of course, are dearly attached to their smartphones.

Study authors took the cellphones of 192 Notre Dame students while they were participating in an unrelated experiment. Then, they examined how often the students forgot to retrieve their phone when they left the lab at the end of the day, and whether it mattered at all if they received explicit reminders to grab the phone once the experiment ended.

Students also had activity trackers attached to the back of their waistbands. One group received a reminder to ask for their phones and return the tracker at the end of the day, while the other group did not. After students finished the unrelated experiment, they were guided to an exit, all while experimenters pretended to go about business as usual. In reality, researchers were carefully observing to see if students would remember to get their phones or return the trackers.

About seven percent of students forgot their cellphones without a reminder, in comparison to nearly five percent of those who were reminded. Close to 18 percent of both groups forgot to return the tracker. Researchers say they discovered that the act of forgetting occurs when environmental cues fail to trigger one’s memory of that intention at the right moment, thus the intention becomes lost in the shuffle. Study authors add prospective memory errors can happen to anyone.

“You process those more automatically, so you can get lost in your thoughts because your behaviors are being driven by the environment,” Rose says in a university release. “It’s not that you forget what it is you’re supposed to be doing; you’re just forgetting to do it at the appropriate moment.”

Confused older man
Confused senior man with dementia looking at a wall calendar (© highwaystarz

So, what causes a dangerous case of forgetfulness?

According to the research team’s theory, in the same way students missed the environmental cues to remind them to pick up their phone or return the tracker, so it is for busy parents driving to work or running errands with a baby in the backseat. Before laws passed in the 1990s requiring car seats to be placed rear-facing in the back seat, stories of people forgetting babies in cars were rare.

“The absence of salient visual and auditory cues from a child who is sleeping in the backseat creates a scenario conducive to forgetting the child is in the car,” the researchers write.

Or, Prof. Rose explains, if a parent is driving with a child in the car but is not typically the caregiver who performs that activity, and he or she gets into a set routine and pattern of driving to work, he or she may forget the child is even there. Prof. Rose notes that memory errors occur at the same frequency between men and women.

“When you talk about the forgotten baby scenarios, people often make assumptions about who forgets their babies, who the caregivers are,” Prof. Rose adds. “And there’s no evidence to support the idea that men are more likely to commit this kind of error than women, or vice versa.”

The research team posits this work can have serious implications when it comes to the acquittal of parents who mistakenly forget to retrieve their children from their car seats, resulting in their deaths.

“This study should help inform the public and judicial system about what does and does not cause such memory errors to happen,” researchers conclude, “even those with tragic consequences.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

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