Can Websites Make Us Forgetful?

First published December 15, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Ever open the door to the fridge and then forget what you were looking for?

Or ever head to your bedroom and then, upon entering it, forget why you went there in the first place?

Me too. And it turns out we’re not alone. New research from the University of Notre Dame’s Gabriel Radvansky indicates this sudden “threshold” amnesia is actually pretty common. Walking from one room to another triggers an “event boundary” in the mind, which seems to act as a cue for the brain to file away short-term memories and move on to the next task at hand. If your tasks causes you to cross one of these event boundaries and you don’t keep your working memory actively engaged through deliberate focusing of attention, it could be difficult to remember what it was that motivated you in the first place.

Ever since I’ve read the original article, I’ve wondered if the same thing applies to navigating websites. If we click a link to move from one page to another, I am pretty sure the brain could well send out a “flush” signal that clears the slate of working memory.  I think we cross these event boundaries all the time online.

Let’s unpack this idea a bit, because if my suspicions prove to be correct, it opens up some very pertinent points when we think of online experiences.  Working memory is directed by active attention. It is held in place by a top-down directive from the brain. So, as long as we’re focused on memorizing a discrete bit of information (for example, a phone number) we’ll be able to keep it in our working memory. But when we shift our attention to something else, the working memory slate is wiped clean. The spotlight of attention determines what is retained in working memory and what is discarded.

Radvansky’s research indicates that moving from one room to another may act as a subconscious environmental cue that the things retained in working memory (i.e. our intent for going to the new room in the first place) can be flushed if we’re not consciously focusing our attention on it. It’s a sort of mental “palate cleansing” to ready the brain for new challenges. Radvansky discovered that it wasn’t distance or time that caused things to be forgotten. It was passing through a doorway. Others could travel exactly the same distance but remain in the same room and not forget what their original intention was. But as soon as a doorway was introduced, the rate of forgetting increased significantly.

Interestingly, one of the variations of Radvansky’s research used virtual environments, and the results were the same. So, if a virtual representation of a doorway triggered a boundary, would moving from one page of a website to another?

I think there are some distinctions here to keep in mind. If you go to a page with intent and you’re following navigational links to get closer to that intent, it’s probably pretty safe to assume that there is some “top-down” focus on that intent. As long as you keep following the “intent” path, you should be able to keep it in focus as you move from page to page. But what if you get distracted by a link on a page and follow that? In that case, your attention has switched and moving to another page may trigger the same “event boundary” dump of working memory. In that case, you may have to retrace your steps to pick up the original thread of intent.

I just finished benchmarking the user experience across several different sites for a client and found that consistent navigation is pretty rare in many sites, especially B2B ones.  If you did happen to forget your original intent as you navigated a few clicks deep in a website, backtracking could prove to be a challenge.

I also suspect that’s why a consistent look and feel as you move from page to page could be important. It may serve to lessen the “event boundary” effect, because there are similarities in the environment.

In any case, Dr. Radvansky’s research opens the door (couldn’t resist) to some very interesting speculations. I do know that in the 10 B2B websites I visited during the benchmarking exercise, the experience ranged from mildly frustrating to excruciatingly painful.

In the worst of these cases, a little amnesia might actually be a blessing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.