New Brock research examines forgetfulness in preschoolers

In spite of their best intentions, three- and four-year-old kids often struggle with remembering what they were supposed to do.

Prospective memory, or the memory of future intentions, is the focus of a new Brock University study by Caitlin Mahy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, and her research team, student Lydia Lavis and lab manager Amanda Krause.

The researchers are exploring two possible reasons why children forget, and whether these reasons differ depending on a child’s age.

“Children forget either because of memory failure, when they can’t remember what they have to do, or because they don’t detect a cue to trigger the behaviour, even though they can remember and report what they had to do,” Mahy says.

“Our prediction is that three year olds fail to carry out their intentions because they forget what they had to do, whereas four year olds forget to carry out their intentions because they don’t detect the cue at the right time — but can still remember what they had to do.”

In order to collect a high volume of data in a short period of time, the research team collaborated with the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) through its Research Live! program.

There is a growing trend of developmental research being conducted in public learning spaces like museums, and Mahy and her team understand why. With a high volume of visitors, the team was able to collect the same amount of data in seven days as they typically would have in a year if restricted to the lab.

Data collection was less controlled than in a lab, because of noise and distractions. But Mahy’s team found that the children were surprisingly focused.

The OSC also provided a diverse group of subjects from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Families from Canada, the U.K., United Arab Emirates and the U.S. all agreed to participate.

Mahy found it moving to see so many children from diverse backgrounds getting excited about participating in science, and enjoyed discussing the research with parents who want to better understand their children’s behaviour.

“Caitlin’s approach to developing novel ways to undertake data collection is a fine example of the innovative efforts made by junior faculty in the Social Sciences,” says Diane Dupont, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the Faculty. “It not only improves their own research, but also showcases the breadth of research inquiry undertaken by Brock faculty.”

Mahy’s study is ongoing. Data will be used for Lavis’s honours thesis project, and eventually published. For more information on the study, visit

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