What's the name of this specific
February 8, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I try to open my front door with my swipe card from work, put 1cm-wide lids onto 5cm-wide bottle tops, and try to write on a whiteboard with a tablet stylus. Is there a name for this form of memory/concentration lapse?

When my main focus is elsewhere, there's clearly a part of my mind that means well and knows that I need "something that unlocks doors" or "something that seals a bottle", and is capable of finding something from that category and trying to use it. What it's not capable of doing is checking whether it's the *right* thing from that category, even if it's a swipe card vs a key, or a 1cm red tube lid instead of a 5cm blue bottle lid. So I suddenly become aware of what I'm doing when I'm moving my swipe card toward a key lock, or when I drop the tiny lid into the big bottle of sterile solution AGAIN, damnit.

Everyone knows what Freudian Slips, Malapropisms and Spoonerisms are. Similarly, is there a name for the common mistake* of trying to use one conceptually similar but obviously wrong object in place of another?

*For bonus points: It's not just me, right? Right?
posted by metaBugs to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer the question but would like to know as it happens to me on occasion too.

Another example is typing your work password into your home computer and vice versa to try and login!
posted by Metaphysics at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

it's not just you. I've been known to stare at my home's door looking for the key swipe whenever I travel a lot for work, press the wrong floor at the elevator when I'm at different clients or hotels and so on.

It feels like I have to 'think' about stuff that happens automatically to others.

I'm looking for an answer too.
posted by viramamunivar at 12:10 PM on February 8, 2014

Best answer: In usability terminology, a description error is "performing the right action for the wrong object, e.g. pouring your juice on your cereal in the morning instead of the milk." (http://www.usabilityfirst.com/glossary/description-error/)
posted by Devoidoid at 12:16 PM on February 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

"Autopilot"? An ingrained habit can play itself out while you're not paying attention.

Where I work now, I occasionally have to walk around on Trident submarines. I can't tell you how many times I've snapped out of thinking about something else to find myself standing in bunkroom 14. Because 13 years ago, I lived on a Trident submarine in bunkroom 14, and for some reason every time I walk forward from the engine room my mind replays the habit from a decade ago. Similarly, I'll often end up in my driveway at home, having intended to go somewhere else, but just driving down the highway in that direction kicks in the autopilot unless I make conscious effort to go somewhere else.
posted by ctmf at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Executive (dys)function? (I do these a lot, too!)
posted by cardinality at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2014

I do this with my car clicker and my front door all the time. I don't know what it is called though
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2014

I do this at the touch-screen Pyxis medication dispenser that has a keyboard-mouse computer right next to it. Routinely tap the "logout" on the computer a couple of times before remembering that it's not the Pyxis.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 1:15 PM on February 8, 2014

Best answer: Agreed with Devoidoid that description error is the term you're looking for.

It's explained very well in this passage from The Design of Everyday Things that I particularly like:

"A former student reported that one day he came home from jogging, took off his sweaty shirt, and rolled it up in a ball, intending to throw it in the laundry basket. Instead he threw it in the toilet. (It wasn't poor aim: the laundry basket and toilet were in different rooms.)

In the common slip known as the description error, the intended action has much in common with others that are possible. As a result, unless the action sequence is completely and precisely specified, the intended action might fit several possibilities. Suppose that my tired student in the example formed a mental description of his intended action something like "throw the shirt into the opening at the top of the container." This description would be perfectly unambiguous and sufficient were the laundry basket the only open container in sight; but when the open toilet was visible, its characteristics matched the description and triggered the inappropriate action. This is a description error because the internal description of the intention was not sufficiently precise. Description errors usually result in performing the correct action on the wrong object. Obviously, the more the wrong and right objects have in common, the more likely the errors are to occur. Description errors, like all slips, are more likely when we are distracted, bored, involved in other activities, under extra stress, or otherwise not inclined to pay full attention to the task at hand."

posted by mekily at 1:47 PM on February 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

I just call that a brain cramp (or brain fart if I am feeling a bit ruder.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2014

Best answer: Maladaptive brain activity change is the scientific term for brain activity preceding the error.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:40 PM on February 8, 2014

Getting old? Not being mindful?

No, it's not just you. I put the peanut butter in the microwave, instead of the cupboard above. Put the cup of hot coffee in the fridge instead of getting out the creamer. Open the junk drawer next to the utensil drawer when I want a spatula. Or pick up the spatula when I want to answer the cell phone.

But NOTHING tops what dear Mr. BlueHorse did this morning:
The routine is make the coffee, feed the dog, feed the cat, and get his breakfast. I hear him out there grousing that the coffee maker's not working, and he's all irritated at the dog for just standing staring at the dog dish instead of eating.

You know where this is going...
He put the coffee grounds in the dog dish and the dog food in the cat dish. Thank Zeus he didn't put the dog food in the coffee maker!
posted by BlueHorse at 4:17 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In language, it would be overgeneralization, trying to extend rules or methods that work on one set of things to another set of things. Maybe that word could also apply to this?
posted by limeonaire at 4:50 PM on February 8, 2014

I put the milk in the cabinet and cereal in the fridge about once a month. Also, grabbing a plate to drink out of happens occasionally. Always wondered if there was a name for it?
posted by prototype_octavius at 10:27 PM on February 8, 2014

I got a nice hot cup of coffee this morning and poured the creamer in and poured more creamer in and more creamer in - and then snapped to and wondered what on earth I was thinking.

Then I thought of you and felt better.
posted by aryma at 2:57 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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