Heuristic Bias or Something More?

By: Melissa Tanner, Ph.D.

Think about a time when you thought your memory failed you. Maybe you forgot to pick up something from the grocery store that your spouse needed. Maybe you forgot that you made plans to meet up with a friend. Maybe you got up from the couch and walked into a different room of the house and couldn’t remember why. No matter how good you think your memory is, you are bound to have experiences like this from time to time. Most errors like the ones described above represent a lapse in attention or a failure to encode information rather than a failure to recall, retrieve, or remember it. We all have an abundance of information swirling around in our heads, particularly during times of high stress. If we are distracted when presented with information, we may not encode it properly and, therefore, may find it unavailable when we try to retrieve it later. This may not represent a true memory deficit and is probably not a cause for concern.

Unfortunately, lapses in attention or failures to encode information often become sources of worry. This is especially true when we use heuristics, or mental short-cuts. Under normal circumstances, heuristics are helpful in that they allow people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. The two most common heuristics are the representative bias and the availability bias. The representative bias involves comparing the present situation to your most representative mental prototype. For example, your mental prototype of someone with dementia is likely that of an older adult. Therefore, as you age and begin to think of yourself as an older adult, you are more likely to associate instances of “forgetting” with the possibility that you are developing dementia. This is true even if the “forgetting” is more related to inattention or failure to encode information than a true memory deficit. The availability bias involves making decisions or drawing conclusions based on an example that easily comes to mind. For example, if you associate aging with memory loss, as you age you will become more attuned to instances of “forgetting,” and they will become more available to you as you attempt to evaluate your own cognitive status. The combination of these two heuristics may lead people over the age of 50 to overestimate the significance of instances of forgetting, thus creating undue anxiety about having dementia.

In an effort to identify risk of cognitive impairment, accelerate diagnosis and treatment, and allay undue anxiety about increasing “forgetfulness,” The BCAT® Research Center has developed an efficient self-assessment tool called myMemCheck®, which is intended to replace existing mental heuristics for evaluation of one’s own cognitive status. myMemCheck® is a low-cost, easily accessible screening tool that takes approximately 3 minutes to complete. Upon completion, an immediate written report that can be shared with healthcare professionals is provided. The tool is available online and can be completed from the comfort of your own home. This reduces the potential anxiety associated with visiting a doctor’s office, which may be an additional barrier to seeking help. Validation studies suggest that myMemCheck® is highly predictive of memory and other cognitive problems. It is intended to be used as a screening tool to determine whether a more comprehensive assessment from a healthcare professional is warranted.

To access myMemCheck®and to learn about other tools and interventions available through the BCAT® Research Center, please visit us at https://enrichvisits.com/mymemcheck.

Kristen Clark