What Fire Extinguishers Tell Us About Human Memory

References:

Castel, A. D., Vendetti, M., & Holyoak, K. J. (2012). Fire drill: Inattentional blindness and amnesia for the location of fire extinguishers. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74(7), 1391-1396.

Blake, A. B., Nazarian, M., & Castel, A. D. (2015). Rapid Communication: The Apple of the mind’s eye: Everyday attention, metamemory, and reconstructive memory for the Apple logo. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(5), 858-865.


Consider your school or workplace. How long have you worked or studied in the same building? Many of us have spent years or even decades wandering the halls of our school or workplace. Recent research shows that we may not know these places as well as we might expect. 

For example, if someone asked you where the nearest fire extinguisher is in your workplace, would you be able to answer them confidently and accurately? 

(1) Maybe fire extinguisher training should include training not just on how to put out fires, but also where the nearest fire extinguisher is located. 

A 2012 paper by Castel, Vendetti, and Holyoak out of the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that many of us would not be able to recall the location of the closest fire extinguisher in our workplace. 

In fact, Castel et al. surveyed 54 professors, staff, and graduate students in the UCLA psychology department and found that only 24 percent of participants were able to recall the location of the closest fire extinguisher. Fifteen percent were able to identify the location of a fire extinguisher, but not the closest one, and a concerningly high 61 percent were not able to remember the location of any fire extinguishers in the building.

Importantly, the people in this study had occupied their offices for an average of 4.9 years. They should have been very familiar with their office building and the different amenities within it.

Castel et al. also surveyed the participants’ ability to identify other important building features. Participants were much more accurate and confident in their recall of the location of oft-used objects, such as the floor plan map, drinking fountains, and wall clocks. Researchers think that these more memorable objects are more likely to be used to accomplish goals, such as telling the time or finding one’s way, on a daily basis by people in the building, explaining why they are more memorable. 

The implications of not knowing where the nearest fire extinguisher are clear. In emergencies, seconds count and being able to confidently find the nearest extinguisher has the potential to save lives and property. This research suggests that unless we are required to use or explicitly make note of important infrastructure, we are unlikely to remember the location of these life-saving tools. 

This phenomenon, more broadly, is called inattentional amnesia. Inattentional amnesia occurs when something grabs our attention in the moment, such as the bright red coloring of most fire extinguishers. However, because our day-to-day life does not require us to remember where these objects are, we are less likely to encode their location in our memories (i.e., amnesia).

(2) Researchers found that only 1 out of 85 people could accurately draw this logo from memory.Researchers found that only 1 out of 85 people could accurately draw this logo from memory.

Similar results have been found by further research by Alan Castel and his colleagues, Meenely Nazarian and Adam Blake (2015). In this followup study, Blake, Nazarian, and Castel found that participants were highly confident that they could draw the logo for Apple computers. 

To the contrary, most participants were not able to pick the right logo out of a lineup of imposter versions with one or two features of the logo altered. Even worse, only one out of 85 participants was able to draw the Apple logo from memory with perfect accuracy of all the defining features.

So what do these findings tell us about human memory? We are exposed to tens if not hundreds or thousands of objects, logos, and locations each day. For the most part, it seems that unless we need to be able to remember these objects for the purpose of the completion of a task or goal, we are likely to forget them (or at least their location). 

Although this finding may sound worrying, our ability to forget is a positive, generally adaptive feature of our memory! If we were able to recall everything we had ever seen, we would most likely be overwhelmed by a constant stream of unnecessary information. Such a stream of unnecessary information would potentially detract from our ability to concentrate on and perform tasks efficiently and effectively.   

Images:

  1. User Aaronrspn on Wikimedia.
  2. Wikipedia Commons.