- If you’ve ever accidentally put your keys in the fridge instead of the milk, you’re not alone.
- This mistaken action is normally brushed off as a simple error.
- But according to a new study, it could be something to do with our mental imagery.
- Our actions are heavily influenced by the images in our heads.
- If our minds are focused on the wrong mental image, we can end up doing the wrong thing, such as driving to the wrong destination.
Recently, I was clearing a glass and some rubbish out of my room. I went into the kitchen, and instead of chucking the water down the sink and throwing out the wrappers, I poured the water into the bin and threw the wrappers in the sink.
I realised the mistake immediately, shook my head, then got on with my day. I put it down to daydreaming, but according to new research from the University of Plymouth, there could be a different psychological explanation.
The new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that errors like putting your car keys in the fridge and your milk on the side occur because people control their actions through mental imagery. If they accidentally think of the wrong mental image, then they might do something unexpected.
The research was led by PhD student James Colton, who recruited 32 undergraduates to rehearse a finger tapping sequence. Occasionally they were shown images for the same movement, or a different one. They were unable to stop themselves being influenced by the images, even when they were forewarned about them and told to stick to the original sequence.
The term “ideomotor” was first used to describe this phenomenon by William Benjamin Carter in 1852, Colton told Business Insider. He was a scientist who investigated supernatural phenomena, such as communicating with the afterlife with an Ouija board.
“It spawned an influential branch of psychology which has had something of a resurgence of interest in recent years,” Colton said. “This study tested, for the first time, one of ideomotor theory’s central ideas – that the intention to act is nothing more than a strong mental image of how it would look, sound a feel to behave in that way.”
It’s a bit like when we act on “autopilot,” because a lot of our behaviour seems to occur automatically. When we perform mundane tasks like making a cup of tea or clearing objects from room to room, we do so with minimal conscious oversight.
“More simply, if everything appears to be fine, we don’t need to pay too much attention to what we’re doing,” Colton said. “However, when we’re not paying attention, sometimes strong cues in the environment can lead us to behave in a way that is counter to our intentions. This is essentially what we tried to induce with the experiment.”
For example, when you’re driving a familiar route, people often say they “glaze over” and don’t remember the route they took. We change gears, press down on the brakes, and take the turnings without really needing to decide to do any of it.
“Now that’s a pretty good feature of our brains, as it allows us to do and think about many things at once without getting lost in the detail,” said Colton.
“Unfortunately, it also means that we’re especially prone to making these kinds of mistakes when we’re distracted or multitasking. I was once so preoccupied with the stresses of starting a new job that I found myself driving to my old place of work along a well-rehearsed route. I didn’t notice until I pulled into the car park!”
Colton and his team have conducted some further experiments to probe the effect in more detail. They are particularly interested in why some participants are more prone to being led astray by their mental images than others. This could be related to how suggestible they are to hypnosis, Colton said. Essentially, being led by my mental imagery rather than being in the present could mean I’m more susceptible to being put in a trance.
But there are also further reaching applications for the research, according to Colton, such as when people are in recovery after illness.
“For example, mental imagery training is used as a means of rehabilitation for patients that have suffered strokes and have lost the ability to move the affected limb,” he said. “We think it’s possible to build on what we’ve learnt from this experiment to improve this imagery therapy.”
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