Prospective memory is the term psychologists use for when we have to remember to do something in the future – like stopping for milk on the way home from work. It requires not just remembering what to do, but remembering to remember at the right time.
There’s actually some past research that suggested women, on average, are more prone to forgetting future tasks than men. But crucially, this research was subjective. Women admitted more memory failures of this kind than men did, but of course that doesn’t mean they really do forget more often.
Now a team led by Liana Palermo has conducted a carefully controlled objective test of prospective memory under laboratory conditions. Fifty men and fifty women (average age 25) were given various tasks to remember to complete, mostly over either two-minute or fifteen-minute time scales, although there was one task after 24 hours.
Averaged across all tasks and conditions, there were no gender differences in performance. But focusing on specific types of tasks, differences emerged. Women were better than men at remembering to perform future tasks that were tied to events rather than a specific delay (e.g. perform task x when I give you a card, as opposed to perform task x in two minutes). The women also tended to outperform men on future tasks that were physical in nature (e.g. writing their address on a post card), as opposed to verbal (e.g. remembering to ask a specific question).
It’s possible the female advantage for some aspects of prospective memory is merely a side-effect of women’s other cognitive advantages. For example, women tend to have superior verbal skills than men, and the instructions in this study were delivered verbally. However, the researchers don’t think this is likely because in that case you’d expect women to outperform men on all forms of prospective memory, and especially on future verbal tasks.
This was a small sample and, being lab-based, the study lacked realism, so more research is certainly needed. But the finding does tie in with other research conducted on the internet that also found a female advantage for prospective memory, and with existing evidence that women have an advantage for episodic memory (that is, remembering things that have happened to them in the past). Regarding the prior research that found women admit to more prospective memory failures, this new study raises the possibility that women are simply better at detecting their own forgetfulness.
Assuming this female advantage is replicated in further studies, why should women be better than men at remembering to remember? Here Palermo and her team are left to speculate: they suggest there could be a biological explanation, such as the known sex-linked differences in the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory). They also propose a possible socio-cultural explanation, which may well resonate with some of our readers:
“…[T]he fact that in addition to work responsibilities, women also have more responsibilities at home. … As a consequence of this social role, in daily life women might perform tasks involving prospective memory/planning skills more than men, thus enhancing their performance in remembering to remember.”
Palermo, L., Cinelli, M., Piccardi, L., Ciurli, P., Incoccia, C., Zompanti, L., & Guariglia, C. (2015). Women outperform men in remembering to remember The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1023734