Exploring the hidden complexities of routine behaviour at Birkbeck’s Science Week

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager, Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Dr Richard Cooper

Dr Richard Cooper at Birkbeck’s Science Week

How often do you forget to attach the relevant document when you are sending emails? When was the last time you accidentally put the coffee in the fridge instead of the milk? Or, more alarmingly, when did you last leave the nozzle of the petrol pump in your car when you drove off from the petrol station? (Yes, believe it or not, there is ample photographic evidence to prove the last point).

Such errors, made during routine tasks, were the centre of attention at a fascinating lecture, entitled The hidden complexities of routine behaviour, during Birkbeck’s Science Week. Dr Richard Cooper explained why it is important to understand routine behaviour, why mistakes are made during everyday tasks, and the implications for the rehabilitation of brain-damaged patients.

Benefits of routine behaviour
The presentation on 3 July began with a description of routine behaviour and its advantages. Dr Cooper, of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, defined routine tasks, such as dressing, grooming, preparing meals, and cleaning, as frequently performed tasks carried out in a stable and predictable environment. By automatically performing various stages in a routine task, people do not have to plan every action on a moment-by-moment basis. This, as Dr Cooper showed, saves the mental exertion associated with constant planning, and enables the brain to think about other things when performing routine tasks.

Difficulties associated with routine tasks
However, routine tasks are prone to error, especially following an interruption, and these mistakes may have “catastrophic consequences”, including vehicle collisions and industrial accidents. Dr Cooper said: “Routine behaviour is not something we can take for granted.”

The lecture continued with a list of different types of errors made while performing routine tasks. These include omission errors (leaving out a vital task), perseverative errors (repeating an action even though the goal has been achieved), and substitution errors (mixing up objects).

Dr Cooper showed how people with brain injuries are much more prone to making these mistakes. He said: “Neurological patients can have a much more difficult time.” They can suffer from a range of problems, including anarchic hand syndrome (where one hand performs involuntary movements), frontal apraxia (which leads to patients making sequential errors and substitution errors on a minute-by-minute basis), or ideational apraxia (which leads to the right action, but wrong place – such as trying to light the wrong end of a candle).

Devising solutions
Dr Cooper also referred to studies of brain-damaged patients in rehabilitation clinics and their performance of routine tasks in a controlled environment. He said: “Re-learning must focus on rote learning of the precise procedure, with no variation. Home environments should be designed to minimise distractions.”

Dr Cooper also hinted at future developments in this field as smart devices might be able to monitor the performance of routine tasks for certain errors. Hopefully the latest technology will be able to help reduce everyday problems in the years ahead.


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