Can forgetting your child in the car happen to just about anyone? – study

Science and Health

A lack of environmental cues can have devastating effects on someone’s memory, a new study has found after attempting to understand how a parent could forget their child in a car.

The recent peer-reviewed study, published in the journal APA PsychNet, details the result of an experiment in human memory.

Why is it important that researchers understand memory?

 Since 1998, 496 children have died from pediatric vehicular heatstroke in the United States. According to a report by The Jerusalem Post, 809 children have died globally from vehicular heatstroke from 1998-2019.

In 2022, 54 animals died of vehicular heatstroke-related conditions, according to PETA.

Advocacy groups are attempting to lobby in US Congress for new safety features to be built into cars to help parents avoid forgetting their children.

THE VEHICLE in Ashdod where a baby died of heat stroke after being left for hours in the sun. (credit: screenshot)

How the researchers collected data on forgetfulness? 

The researchers used a data sample of 192 students. In replacement of babies, for ethical reasons, the researchers sought to understand how often and why the students would forget their phones.

The researchers watched as students, who were participating in other experiments, forget their phones when they left the lab. In some cases, the students were given reminders and in other cases they were not, to understand what prompts might improve a person’s memory.

Both groups were given activity trackers, which were attached to their waistbands and were asked to return their trackers. However, only one group was given a verbal reminder to collect their phone at the end of the session.

Of the group with an environmental cue, the tracker, nearly 5% had forgotten their phone. In the group without an environmental cue, 7% of the students forgot to retrieve their phones.

Nearly 18% of both categories had forgotten to return their tracker.

Why do people forget things?

The researchers found that forgetting can occur when environmental cues are unsuccessful in triggering a memory of intention at the correct moment.

In moments where there is a lot going on, the intention can be lost. The researchers added that this could happen to anyone.

“When you talk about the forgotten baby scenarios, people often make assumptions about who forgets their babies, who the caregivers are,” co-author Nathan Rose said. “And there’s no evidence to support the idea that men are more likely to commit this kind of error than women, or vice versa.” 

“You process those more automatically, so you can get lost in your thoughts because your behaviors are being driven by the environment,” Rose said. “It’s not that you forget what it is you’re supposed to be doing; you’re just forgetting to do it at the appropriate moment.”

Parents, who often have to deal with a lot of stimuli, may forget their intention to take the baby out of the car because there is an overwhelming amount going on around them.

Adding to this, there are fewer environmental cues now than there had been in the past. The 1990s introduced legislation enforcing babies to be placed in rear-facing backseat car seats. Before this, babies were placed in a more visual location and were less frequently forgotten, although less safe.

“The absence of salient visual and auditory cues from a child who is sleeping in the backseat creates a scenario conducive to forgetting the child is in the car,” the researchers wrote.