Stories | October 19, 2016

How pictures of kittens can help you manage money

It might sound strange, but unusual cues that actually distract you can make top reminders for that to-do list.

When trying to save more money or pay off a debt, a carefully thought-out plan can really improve personal finances. But it all takes time – and it can be so easy to forget the detail, or otherwise not follow through with a strategy.

There’s no foolproof way to remember everything, even when it’s to do with money; memories fade and present bias keeps the focus on the here and now.

However, research by Todd Rogers at Harvard and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania reveals that certain types of reminder work better than others – sometimes improving the ability to remember tasks on schedule by as much as 32%.

Matching the right cues
Rogers and Milkman found that making up unrelated, striking cues and matching them up with tasks we need to be reminded about can help. In a first small experiment, the team aimed to get people to remember a promise to donate to charity.

During an online test, people were asked if they would like to donate to a specific charity, and told that if they wanted to do this they should pick up a paperclip on leaving the room and take it with them. And some were also told that, to remind them to do this, an elephant statuette would be sitting on the counter next to a pile of paperclips.

“Elephants never forget”
Of those who said they would donate to charity, 74% who got the distinctive reminder of the elephant statuette remembered to pick up the paperclip on the way out. Only 42% of those who were not given the elephant reminder did so.

Rogers and Milkman explain: “Cues that have rarely been encountered before are more likely to trigger accurate recall of an associated memory than more common cues. This is because rarer cues will have relatively fewer other associations that might be triggered when they are noticed.”

A second experiment used a series of slightly different elephant cartoons as reminders, with only one specific version being the cue. This time, only 53% of people remembered to pick up a paperclip. Other experiments in different situations, reviewed by Rogers and Milkman, also find that unusual cues can be the most helpful reminders – even when compared with written messages and notes.

Making new associations
Another study discussed by Milkman in the first paper used coupons. It found that only 17% of people remembered to redeem a coupon for a $1 cashback at a particular café the following Thursday. The percent of people who remembered this increased to 24% if the coupon included a written message to look out for a picture of an alien by the till, which was placed there by café staff on the right day.

“The cue was visible to everyone, but it only served as a reminder to use the coupon for those who received the reminder-through-association flyer. The two conditions differed only in whether the stuffed alien cue was linked with the intention to redeem the coupon,” the authors write.

“While written reminders can sometimes be highly effective, in environments with many stimuli competing for attention, reminders-through-association can be more effective.”

The cuddly connection
Other cues, such as stuffed toys, were used in some of the studies reviewed by Rogers and Milkman with similar results. The studies also resonate with the idea that forming mental images or pictures can be more helpful for memory than written reminders.

Meanwhile, a Japanese study suggests people actually concentrate better after looking at pictures of kittens or other cute animals. The full paper from 2012 is available here.

So perhaps those cute cat photos on the internet can be actually put to work for us. It seems that anything that stands out from its surroundings, presented at the right place and time, can help turn good intentions into action. It’s easy to see how this might improve money management – yet another example of the power of making a good plan when it comes to personal finances.

Bridging the memory gap
The strategy Rogers and Milkman tested seems to work mainly because of its unusual approach – attracting attention in the midst of routine.

Many people are very good at setting written reminders for themselves. Reminders of due dates for upcoming bills can be set up as automatic alerts on a computer or mobile device or as written Post-It notes, stuck to the fridge. Yet people often still forget to follow these cues at the right time, perhaps getting distracted by something else.

Often, one thought simply seems to push out another, so why not try pairing up a few more unusual reminders instead, as Milkman and Rogers suggest?

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