¶ In my building, as I’m sure in others, when somebody boards with a handful of packages or groceries or whatnot, somebody else will ask “What floor?” offering to relieve the incommoded passenger of pressing a button. I make this offer all the time. But I rarely accept it. That’s because I find it distressing to watch people try to find the correct button. You’d think there wouldn’t be anything to it, but it stumps everyone. Everyone has to aim a hovering, uncertain finger, and almost everyone takes three or four seconds to find the button. An unnecessary challenge! And obviously one that no one expects. I thought that it was just the poor design of our building’s elevator panels, so imagine my surprise when I came across this the other day.
The Floor Effect: Impoverished Spatial Memory for Elevator Buttons
People typically remember objects to which they have frequently been exposed, suggesting thatmemory is a byproduct of perception. However, prior research has shown that people have exceptionally poor memory for the features of some objects (e.g., coins) to which they have been exposed over the course of many years. Here we examined how people remember the spatial layout of the buttons on a frequently-used elevator panel, to determine if physical interaction (rather than simple exposure) would ensure the incidental encoding of spatial information. Participants who worked in an eight-story office building displayed very poor recall for the elevator panel, but above-chance performance on a recognition test. Performance was related to how often and how recently the person had used the elevator. In contrast to their poor memory for the spatial layout of the elevator buttons, most people readily recalled small distinctivegraffiti on the elevator wall. In a more implicit test, the majority were able to locate their office floor and eighth floor buttons when asked to point toward these buttons when in the actual elevator, with the button labels covered. However, identification was very poor for other floors (including the first floor), suggesting that even frequent interaction with information does not always lead to accurate spatial memory. The findings have implications for understanding the complex relationships among attention, expertise and memory.