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Inattentive Mistake False Alarms

Let me tell you about the bowl of cereal I had yesterday.

What makes this a complicated bowl of cereal is not the cereal itself, but the milk. I had two cartons of milk in the fridge – one open, one still sealed.

But I realized the unopened carton had a nearer expiration date than the opened carton, so before getting my cereal I resolved that I would open the unopened carton and use that first before finishing the carton that was already opened.

ForgetfulI poured my cereal, put the milk in, and started to eat my cereal. Immediately, though, I realized that I had no memory of opening the new carton of milk I’d intended to use. Naturally, I then wondered: did I forget to open the near-dated carton of milk, and did I unthinkingly use the already opened milk?

It’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. And I couldn’t enjoy my cereal with that possibility on my conscience, so I went back to the fridge to check the milk situation.

Nope, false alarm. Both cartons of milk were now open, so I had opened the correct carton of milk. I’d just been thinking about something else and hadn’t been aware enough of opening the new milk to remember it.

Why am I regaling you with a multi-paragraph expose about a bowl of cereal I ate? Because I think this story is a microcosm of what I’ll call an inattentive mistake false alarm.

These false alarms occur when we think we’ve made an inattentive mistake, but we actually haven’t.

In the cereal situation, I could have forgotten to open the correct carton of milk – clearly I wasn’t paying very close attention to my actions. And because I’m constantly making those kinds of everyday inattentive oversights, I immediately started to suspect that I had forgotten to open the milk when I realized I had no memory of doing so.

Inattentive false alarms can occur in any context.

They occur when you think you’ve locked your keys in your car again but find them safely in your pocket. They occur when you suddenly realize you might have forgotten to relay some important information to someone, but then discover that you already told them and just don’t remember doing so. They occur when you can’t remember brushing your teeth, washing your hair, or adding an ingredient to the meal you’re cooking, and then end up doing that twice.

Those of us with ADHD have a way of forgetting actions we’ve recently taken, especially if those actions are done inattentively or automatically.

Then, when we can’t remember those actions, it’s reasonable to assume that we never took the action in the first place. After all, in many cases we do forget to do things because that’s part of inattention too.

Something that can help is saying actions that you want to remember out loud, or in your internal voice. “I’m brushing my teeth now.” To some degree, though, we probably just have to accept that inattentive false alarms, like inattentive mistakes, are a part of life with ADHD.

Image: Flickr/Wade Morgen

Inattentive Mistake False Alarms

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2020). Inattentive Mistake False Alarms. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 May 2020
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