Why forgetting at work sometimes helps you make better decisions


Don’t feel bad that you can no longer remember state capitals. The ability to forget certain things may actually improve your decision-making process in other areas.

Relying on your smartphone or computer to find an answer can sometimes feel like using a crutch, but you shouldn’t worry that you’re no longer challenging yourself. Globalization and digitalization have made work increasingly complex, and information can quickly become outdated. The ability to forget certain things may actually improve your decision-making process in other areas, according to a new study from the University of Münster published in the Ergonomics journal.

In an experiment, Guido Hertel, professor of organizational and business psychology, and Professor Jörg Becker from the Institute of Information Systems, simulated a typical business process in which people had to make decisions about sales. One group had an information system to draw from, while the other had to rely on memory.

The availability of a supporting information system not only led to better economic decisions, it released the users’ cognitive resources, allowing them to better remember other details and feel less stress.


Diego Klabjan, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences for Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, supports the research but says “forgetting” is probably not an adequate word.

“I think it’s more about refocusing on other aspects, which is not exactly the same,” he says. “In today’s world, people often try multitasking, but they’re not good at it so they’re not as productive as possible. An information system or decision support system can assist a human by keeping them relieved of some of the more perpetual low-level tasks. That leaves the human under less stress and enables them to perform their task at hand more efficiently and in a more productive way.”


However, this act of forgetting, or refocusing, is not something that decision-makers find easy. The major pre-condition for these positive effects was that the test persons trusted the information system, the study found. “Only then could better performances be clearly observed,” writes Hertel.

Technical reliability and the quality of the available information content are essential. “What we found surprising was that trust in the information systems was determined by a wide variety of influencing factors,” writes Hertel, “Distrust, on the other hand, already arises with one single problem; for example, a one-off technical problem.”

Users need to understand and drive the systems, adds Klabjan. “Sometimes it will suffice that the person trusts the developer of the system rather than knowing how the system works,” he says. “Sometimes the person needs to trust who is employing or managing the use of the system. Other times the end user needs to understand the system at a high level. Nobody likes to use a system by default.”


While freeing up resources for more important issues sounds good, it can have unintended consequences, cautions Anjana Susaria, associate professor of accounting and information systems at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.

She points to a 2006 study of London cab drivers. “To be licensed, cabbies have to memorize 25,000 city streets,” she says “The city is not a user-friendly grid; it’s quite convoluted. It can take three or four years of studying to pass the test. This impacted the cabbies’ memory center in the brain, creating greater volume in their hippocampus.”

Today, London cab drivers could rely on Google Maps, but they don’t. “London cabbies new competition is Uber,” says Susaria. “Uber would have you believe that the cabbies’ knowledge is not of value. It sounds like it’s good if we forget stuff because it’s freeing up cognitive resources you could devote to memorizing other tasks, but there could be unintended consequences, such as the loss of local knowledge that may be important.”

Automating knowledge can backfire, depending on what we might lose. “Too much reliance on systems is making people less smart in some ways,” says Susaria.

Source: Fast Company