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Destination Amnesia: When You Forget Who You Told What

September 1, 2010

Older adults are more likely to have destination memory failures—forgetting who they've shared or not shared information with, according to a new study from the Rotman Research Institute, part of Baycrest, the University of Toronto affiliated health-sciences center and scientific research and clinical practice dedicated to transforming the journey of aging. Destination amnesia is the kind of memory faux pas that can lead to awkward or embarrassing social situations and even miscommunication in the doctor's office. Compounding the problem is that after making these memory errors older adults remain highly confident in their false beliefs.

"What we've found is that older adults tend to experience more destination amnesia than younger adults," said lead investigator and cognitive scientist Dr. Nigel Gopie, who led the study with internationally-renowned experts in memory and attention, Drs. Fergus Craik and Lynn Hasher. "Destination amnesia is characterized by falsely believing you've told someone something, such as believing you've told your daughter about needing a ride to an appointment, when you actually had told a neighbor." The study appears online, ahead of print publication, in the Online First Section of Psychology and Aging.

Why are older adults more prone to destination memory failures? The ability to focus and pay attention declines with age, so older adults use up most of their attentional resources on the telling of information and don't properly encode the context—such as who they are speaking to— for later recall. "Older adults are additionally highly confident, compared to younger adults, that they have never told people particular things when they actually had," added Dr. Gopie. "This over-confidence presumably causes older adults to repeat information to people." A critical finding in the study is that destination memory is more vulnerable to age-related decline than source memory. Source memory is the ability to recall which person told you certain information.
In the research, 40 students ages 18 to 30 from the University of Toronto and 40 healthy older adults ages 60 to 83 from the community were divided into two experimental groups. The first experiment measured destination memory accuracy and confidence: requiring the individual to read out loud 50 interesting facts to 50 celebrities (whose faces appear on a computer screen), one at a time, and then remember which fact they told to which famous person. For example, "a dime has 118 ridges around it" and I told this fact to Oprah Winfrey. The second experiment measured source memory accuracy and confidence: requiring the individual to remember which famous person told them a particular fact. For example, Tom Cruise told me that "the average person takes 12 minutes to fall asleep".

In the first experiment for destination memory accuracy, older adults' performance was 21 percent worse than their younger counterparts. In the second experiment for source memory accuracy, older and younger adults performed about the same (60 percent for young and 50 percent for old) in recollecting which famous face told them a particular fact. The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, US National Institute on Aging and a Baycrest Jack and Rita Catherall Award.