11/15/2011 12:14 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

The Psychology of Rick Perry's Memory Lapse

Rick Perry's memory lapse during the Republican debate has raced all over the news for the past few days. For those of you who were buried in a hole last week, Perry started to list three government agencies he would eliminate if elected president. He listed two of them (Commerce and Education) and then stumbled for a full minute to remember the third. (He meant to say Energy).

How could this have happened?

There are three aspects of psychology at the core of Perry's inability to remember the three agencies.

First, Rick Perry is fairly new to national politics. Because his focus has largely been on Texas politics, he does not have an elaborated set of beliefs about many core issues that are central to governing at the national level.

It is generally difficult to remember factors that are disconnected from the rest of our knowledge. When you meet someone new, for example, you often have trouble remembering their name. Names are hard to remember, because they are arbitrary and are not connected to anything else you know about the person.

For Rick Perry, these three agencies are just names. They are independent facts that have no interconnections. For a politician who has already thought deeply about a set of issues, the agencies would have been much more deeply connected to other knowledge and would have been easier to remember.

Second, the way memory works is that when you are trying to recall something, the things you know compete to come out. They are like a group of five-year-olds trying to be called to be on a kickball team. Each one jumps up trying to be seen and at the same time they shove at the other items in memory trying to push them down. So, after you recall a couple of items, it actually gets harder to remember the others, because the first few things you remember have shoved down the other information you're trying to recall.

Finally, stress affects memory. Rick Perry has been anxious about debating for much of his political life. In his 2010 run for governor of Texas, Perry had a commanding lead over his Democratic challenger Bill White. Because he was leading in the polls, Perry elected not to debate White.

The stress of debating can affect your ability to remember things. Indeed, experimental psychologists often use public speaking as a way of creating anxiety in research participants to look at the effects of stress on memory and thinking.

The best way to combat the effects of stress and to avoid choking under pressure is to practice in pressure situations. Athletes routinely create pressure-packed practice sessions in order to be ready to perform at their best in high-stakes situations.

In retrospect, Rick Perry's decision to avoid debates (as he did in 2010) may have contributed to his memory lapse. In all likelihood, Perry would have won the governorship in Texas in 2010 even if he had debated poorly against Bill White. But that experience would have helped to prepare him for debates on the national stage where the stakes were much higher.

Ultimately, it is important to face stressful situations as often as possible to be prepared to perform at your best.