Organizations spend millions of dollars each year trying to get their employees to be less absentminded. Businesses shell out significant funds for planning software and systems. Administrators tack up signs and send out emails reminding employees to fill out their timesheets, enroll in benefits programs, or prepare for meetings. And of course, individuals personally wrestle with overcoming forgetfulness.
We have found that some of the costly digital and paper memory jogs widely used to solve the problem of forgetting could instead be replaced with a stuffed alien toy. Perhaps some explanation is in order. Bothered by our own memory failings, we wondered if connecting an intention that could easily be forgotten (such as returning a library book) with an eye-grabbing cue—such as that stuffed alien—that would be visible at the appropriate time might improve follow-through. And it does, as we report in a recent paper in Psychological Science.
The simple trick, which we refer to as “reminders through association,” can be used by managers to improve employees’ compliance with tasks, marketers to increase sales, and busy professionals to remember to feed the goldfish or check in on a sick friend. The reminders-through-association hack works by linking our intentions—memories that we need to recall in the future—with a cue that will be waiting for us, right when we need it.
Take the case of a café that is trying to enable its customers to remember to use coupons when they make their next visit. We studied whether the reminders-through-association approach could help with this challenge by posting our research assistants outside a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass. for seven hours on a Tuesday. The café was busy, and our assistants passed out coupons promising $1 off their purchase on Thursday (two days in the future) to about 500 customers. Each coupon was attached to a flyer. Half of the customers received a flyer that said, “When you see the cash register on Thursday, remember to use this coupon.” The other half received a the same flyer plus an additional flyer featuring a photo of a colorful stuffed alien and told them that the alien would be sitting on the cash register on Thursday to remind them to use their coupon.
The alien did his job: Two days later, 24% of customers who were told to look for him remembered to use their coupon, while only 17% of those who simply were told to look for the cash register did. That’s a 41% increase in the fraction of customers who remembered to use the coupon!
Why did the alien serve as a better memory jog than the cash register? For a reminder-through-association to work well it needs to be distinctive—something out of place that will catch the eye. To remind yourself to mail a stack of bills in the morning, for example, you might put a tennis ball on top of them. If you want to remember to get a flu shot in the fall at your local CVS, try telling yourself you’ll get one on the first day you see Halloween candy on sale there. And to remind employees to fill out the sign-up sheet for the holiday party, place it next to the brand new large snow globe on the receptionist’s desk and let people know to sign-up when they see the distinctive new tchotchke.
Moving from the café to our research lab, we found that distinctive visual cues can be even better memory prompts than written reminders. In one online experiment, for example, participants who planned to make a charitable donation were told that they would be reminded to do so either by a written reminder sign or by a picture of a colorful stuffed alien. When the time came, 92% of those who saw the alien remembered to donate, as compared to 78% of those who saw the written reminder and 71% of those who received no reminder.
Reminders-through-association could significantly improve people’s follow-through on their best intentions, saving them and their organizations valuable resources. Unfortunately, though, many people underestimate their need for such prompts. In one of our experiments, some participants were given the chance to pay a very small amount of money (.03 cents) to later see a cue (a picture of an elephant) designed to remind them to take a step needed to earn a 60-cent bonus. Only 53% chose to pay for the reminder. Those who elected to purchase the reminder ended up out-remembering those who did not, were more likely to claim the bonus, and made more money total (net of the fee paid for a reminder) as a result.
This memory trick involving aliens and elephants may sound quirky, but we think you can leverage it to save yourself and your organization significant time and money—and even improve your well-being. Leaders might use reminders-through-association to “nudge” people to follow through on important but easily forgotten plans, from updating a 401k form to completing a will to scheduling an annual physical. Who would have imagined that a stuffed alien could have such power?