Setting Yourself Up to Remember: The Benefits of Memory Cues

Benefits of Memory Cues


There are so many things we have to remember to do every day, that we often end up forgetting quite a few of them. One way to remember them is to use external memory cues, which are objects or events that remind us of the things that we need to do. This article will explain to you how these cues work, give you example for various types of cues, and show you how you can use cues to help you remember.


How cues help us remember

Memory cues are external objects or events that help trigger an action or a memory of that action. These cues can often be more effective in doing this than internal memory cues, which are things such as thoughts, intentions, and mental reminders.

By serving as trigger, memory cues help us with our prospective memory, which is a type of memory that involves remembering to perform actions in the future. This is different than our retrospective memory, which involves recalling things that we experienced in our past.

Note: I won’t get into the specific cognitive mechanisms behind external cues here, but if you want to read more on the topic, you can start with this fMRI study on prospective memory, or this paper on strategic and automatic processes in prospective memory retrieval.


Examples for external cues

Simply put, memory cues can be any external thing that helps us remember what we need to do. For example, if you remember to brush your teeth in the morning because the toothbrush is right next to the sink where you wash your face, you could say that the toothbrush served as a memory cue.

Below are some examples for ways you can use external cues to remember to do things:

  • If you need to remember to floss your teeth, you can put the box with the floss on top of your tube of toothpaste.
  • If you need to remember to take a pill each morning, you can put the pills next to whatever you usually eat for breakfast, or in a visible location in the area where you eat.
  • If you want to start the day by writing a paper for a class instead of procrastinating on social media, you can put a piece of paper with a reminder on top of your keyboard.
  • You can also use cues to remember more abstract things. For example, you can use your watch as a reminder to take things easy, so that every time you look at it you remember to relax a little.


The worst kind of example

While memory cues usually help with small things, they can also make a big difference, and one of the most notable examples for this is in the case of parents forgetting their kids in the car.

This sort of event is unfortunately common. A study which analyzed heat-related deaths of young children in parked cars, found that 73% of the children were left there by adults, half of which were unaware or forgot that they were leaving their child in the car. Often, the children were left by family member who intended to take them to childcare, but forgot and went to work instead.

One father tells a story of how he used to always run errands by himself on Wednesday. One Wednesday however, the relative who usually babysits for him couldn’t come, so the dad took his 10-months-old son Will with him when he went grocery shopping. “Luckily” for him, the kid fell asleep just as they left the house, and remained asleep throughout the car ride. When they got to the grocery store, the dad rushed quickly out of the car and across the parking lot, in an attempt to avoid spending time in the freezing temperatures of the Massachusetts winter. Once he got to the grocery store, he realized that he forgot the grocery list on the passenger sit of the car. As he says next:

When I realized what else I had forgotten, I learned the true meaning of “panic attack.” I just stood there, paralyzed by a deeper fear than I have ever known. I could try to sugarcoat it by saying I was sleep-deprived and out of my normal routine—factual statements—but there was no denying another fact: I simply forgot about my son. If not for remembering the grocery list, there is a very good chance my boy would’ve been frozen to death upon my return.

This is an example for a situation where a simple memory cue (the grocery list), made a huge difference. If you have a kid yourself, you can implement this solution using intentional memory cues, by leaving your briefcase, phone, or wallet next to your kid when you drive with them in the car.

Some people even advocate leaving something like your left shoe behind, with the idea being that there’s no chance of you not noticing that you don’t have your shoe on. While this could work for some people, the problem with this is that it causes more inconvenience than leaving something like your phone or briefcase. This is risky, because the more inconvenient a cue is, the less likely you will be to use it every time, which makes it unreliable. The best memory cue is the one that strikes the balance between serving as an effective reminder, and being convenient enough to use consistently.


How to use cues to remember things

Cues are relatively simple to implement, using one of two ways:

  • You can set up certain things that will serve as cues- this means that you intentionally set up a certain item or event which will appear at an appropriate time and serve as a reminder. For example, you could leave your phone next to your kid when you enter the car.
  • You can also decide that something which occurs naturally will serve as a cue- this means that you intentionally take advantage of something that you encounter naturally or which occurs naturally in your everyday life, and use it as a reminder for something that you need to do. For example, you could make the act of opening the car door a reminder to check your pocket for your phone and wallet.


Summary and conclusions

  • Our prospective memory enables us to remember actions which we need to perform in the future, such as flossing our teeth everyday.
  • External memory cues can aid our prospective memory, by triggering a mental reminder of actions that we need to perform.
  • External cues can often be more reliable in triggering necessary actions than internal cues, such as mental reminders that we set for ourselves.
  • You can either intentionally set up certain items/events to serve as cues, or you can pick things that you already encounter naturally in your everyday life.
  • The best reminders are those that are convenient to integrate into your routine, which ensures that you will use them consistently. Even the most effective reminder is useless if it is inconvenient enough that you don’t use it every time you should.


The Strategic Advantage of Being a Small Fish

The three gunslingers


Roland, Harry, and Billy are three outlaws who recently arrived at the town of Deadwood. After realizing there’s not enough room for the three of them in this town, they decide to meet at the town center at noon, and duel to the death.

The rules of the duel are simple: each one, in his turn, gets to fire one shot at whomever he wants. This goes on until there’s only one man left standing.

Roland is an excellent shot, who never misses. Harry on the other hand is pretty good but not perfect, and hits the target 70% of the time. Billy is the worst shot of the three, and can only hit the target 30% of the time.

Since Billy is the youngest, and the worst shot by far, the other two outlaws let him go first. Roland, being the best shot of the three, agrees to let Harry go second, and therefore to go last himself.

Billy, now realizing he probably made a mistake entering this duel, is standing there and contemplating who to shoot, since leaving town is unfortunately no longer an option. What should he do if he wants to survive?


Game theory analysis

When it comes to choosing who to shoot, Billy has two options:

  • Harry: If Billy shoots Harry and hits, Roland will kill him for certain on his turn, since Roland never misses.
  • Roland: If Billy shoots Roland and hits, Harry will shoot him on his turn. While Harry only has a 70% chance of hitting Billy, that’s quite a bit better then Billy’s 30% chance of hitting Harry, and this is made worse by the fact that Harry gets to take the first shot at him.

As you can see, neither option looks too promising, though option B looks a bit better than option A. But what if there was a third, preferable option?

In fact, the best strategy for Billy is to fire his first bullet straight in the air. Then Harry, on his turn, will shoot at Roland, since he knows that if he doesn’t then Roland will kill him during the next turn (because Harry poses a bigger threat to Roland than Billy does).

If Harry kills Roland, then Billy gets to fire the first shot at Harry, which is better for Billy than having Harry take the first shot at him.

If Harry misses Roland, then Roland kills Harry on his turn. Then, Billy gets one shot at Roland, before Roland wipes him out.

Regardless of whether Harry misses or hits, Billy is better off missing his first shot intentionally, rather than trying to hit one of the other two outlaws.


The lesson

Sometimes, if you’re a little fish in a big pond, it’s better to stand back, and let the big fish take each other out before you step into the race. Often, the leader and the runner-ups can be so weakened by their attacks on each other, that those far behind them can take advantage of this and catch up. While doing this still didn’t guarantee that Billy will survive, his odds certainly improved in comparison to what would have happened if he had decided to step in to the game from the start.


Other things we’ve learned

Being the big fish can actually be a disadvantage- in this scenario, Roland has the lowest odds of survival, despite being the best shot of the three. Being the big fish didn’t guarantee victory for him; instead, it just made him a bigger target.

Don’t give up a potential advantage- if Roland hadn’t let the other two guys go before him automatically, he would have had a much better chance of survival. Just because you’re the big fish, doesn’t mean you should give up any potential advantages.

Know how to pick your battles- though Billy was able to improve his odds by thinking strategically and waiting before entering the fight, he is still more likely to die than not. The truly smart move for him would have been to avoid this duel in the first place.


Summary and conclusions

  • Often, being the big fish in a pond can be a disadvantage, because it makes you a bigger target.
  • If you’re the big fish, don’t automatically give up all your potential advantages; just because you’re stronger doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed victory.
  • If you’re the small fish, you can often benefit from hanging back before attacking, and letting the leader and the runner-ups weaken each other.
  • The most important strategic consideration is knowing how to pick your battles. If you enter the wrong battle, even the best strategic thinking might not help much.


This strategy and example come from “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

I recommend it over the earlier version of the book (“Thinking Strategically”), because that’s what the authors themselves recommend. However, the difference between the two versions isn’t too crucial.


The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Always Change Minds

The Backfire Effect


In a perfectly-rational world, people who encounter evidence which challenges their beliefs, would first evaluate this evidence, and then adjust their beliefs accordingly. However, in reality this is seldom the case.

Often, when people encounter evidence that should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they reject this evidence, and strengthen their support for their original stance. This occurs due to a cognitive bias known as the backfire effect, and the following article will show you when and why this bias influences people, and how understanding it can benefit you.


Examples for the backfire effect

Instances of the backfire effect have been observed in a large number of scientific studies, which looked at various scenarios:

  • A study which examined voting preference showed that introducing people to negative information about a political candidate that they favor, often causes them to increase their support for that candidate.
  • A study which examined misconceptions about politically-charged topics (such as tax cuts and stem-cell research), found that giving people accurate information about these topics often causes them to believe in their original misconception more fervently, in cases where the new information contradicts their preexisting beliefs.
  • A study which examined parents’ intent to vaccinate their children, found that when parents who are against vaccinating are given information showing why vaccinating their child is the best course of action, they sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism. Furthermore, even when these parents’ misconceptions regarding the vaccination-autism link are reduced, the information still leads to a decreased intent to vaccinate their children (a phenomenon that has also been observed for other types of vaccination decisions, such as choosing to vaccinate against the season flu).


What causes the backfire effect

The backfire effect is essentially a type of confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs.

This effect occurs as a result of the process through which people argue against information that challenges their beliefs. Essentially, when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments to support their stance. This causes them to believe that there is more proof in support of their viewpoint than there was before they were presented with the unwelcome evidence, which can lead them to support their original stance more strongly than they did before.


How understanding the backfire effect can benefit you

Understanding the role of the backfire effect in other people’s thought process can help you engage with them better. One study, for example, examined people’s opinions about federal welfare programs. The researchers found that the majority of people were highly-misinformed about the nature and scope of these programs, and that interestingly enough, the people who were the least-informed about them generally expressed the highest degree of confidence in their knowledge.

Furthermore, the researchers found that presenting people with facts about these welfare programs did little to change people’s opinion about them. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers discovered that tweaking the way they presented the facts made people respond more positively to the new evidence.

In this follow-up, people were first asked to estimate the percentage of the national budget that is allocated towards welfare. Then, they were also asked what percent of the budget they believe should be spent on welfare.

Posing these questions back-to-back lead participants to contrast their perception of reality with their preferred level of spending. Then, participants were told which portion of the budget is spent on welfare in reality. This meant that most of them had to process the fact that not only is the federal-spending lower than they thought, but it is also lower than the portion of the budget that they believe should be allocated to welfare. Asking people to explicitly list how much they believe should be spent on welfare led to them being willing to change their opinion when they later learned that this number is higher than the actual budget.

For you, this means that when you’re talking to people in an effort to change their stance on something, you need to remember that it’s not just about the information that you give them, but also about how you present it. As such, you need to display the new information in a non-confrontational manner, that allows people to internalize and accept the new facts, by reaching the conclusions that you want them to reach themselves. That is, if you actually want to get your point across, attacking the other person for having the ‘wrong’ opinion, no matter how misguided it might be, is unlikely to work, since it will probably just put them in a defensive mindset, where they’re not willing to accept new evidence.

Understanding the role of the backfire effect in your own thought process can also help you make more rational decisions. This necessitates being critical of your judgement, and of how you process new information. Essentially, you need to fight against this effect as you would against any other form of the confirmation bias: by being more critical of arguments which support your beliefs, and by not automatically discarding arguments which provide evidence against them.

You can use the same technique that you saw above for mitigating the backfire effect in other people on yourself. This means that when you encounter new information which contradicts your beliefs, you should try and consider its validity and implications, instead of trying to immediately explain why it’s wrong.


The backfire effect isn’t always there

While the backfire effect plays a significant role in how people process new information, that doesn’t mean that it affects everyone all the time, as studies show that there are a lot of cases where the backfire effect doesn’t influence people’s thought process.

This doesn’t necessarily contradict other findings, since even studies that show support for the existence of the backfire effect demonstrate that its influence is highly variable. Furthermore, since it’s difficult to predict when the backfire effect will play a role, it’s better to generally assume that it will, and to act accordingly. This disclaimer is only here to remind you that human psychology is complex, and that cognitive biases rarely affect people in a clear-cut, easily-predictable way.


Summary and conclusions

  • The backfire effect is a phenomenon where people who encounter evidence that contradicts their beliefs, strengthen their support for those beliefs, despite the new evidence to the contrary.
  • This effect has been observed in various scenarios, such as people supporting a political candidate more strongly after negative information about that candidate is released.
  • The backfire effect is a type of confirmation bias, that occurs because when people argue strongly against unwelcome information, they end up with more arguments that support their original stance.
  • If you’re trying to explain to someone the issues with their stance, you can mitigate the backfire effect by presenting new information in a way that allows the other person to reach the conclusion that you want them to reach by themself, based on the evidence that they encounter.
  • There is variability in terms of when people are influenced by this effect, but since this variability is difficult to predict, it’s better to act under the assumption that the backfire effect will play a role in people’s decision-making process.