Recently I changed my password on my computer but for the past few days I keep entering the old one when trying to log in or unlock it. Is there a word or phrase in to describe this? Another example would be writing 2013 for the year out of habit even though you know it's 2014.

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    Combining the two answers: My muscle memory auto-piloted my previous pw. Feb 10, 2014 at 22:49
  • I mandrautolly entered the password until I realised Joe had changed it for my own protection, ... I was is mandrauto mode, when I mandrautical ?
    – X Tian
    Feb 11, 2014 at 18:42
  • Depending how old you are, perhaps early-onset dementia?! (LOL, as the young people say nowadays.) Feb 11, 2014 at 23:47

11 Answers 11


There's no special word just for doing that with passwords that I know of.

However, the term for when you just do something physical like that without thinking about it because you done it a jillion times before is "muscle memory". Another example is working a combination lock you've been using for a long time, but not being able to actually tell another person what the combination is (without grabbing hold of the lock and working it and reciting the numbers as you get to them).

The problem of course is if the thing you've trained your body to do changes (eg: your combination changes), then the muscle memory actually works against you. At least until you can retrain.

  • We jokingly call it "finger memory" at work.
    – AthomSfere
    Feb 11, 2014 at 12:40
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    I think of it as having trained the ape I'm riding around in to perform a task -- just as he now walks for me without my having to consider every detail, and in fact he does most of the actions of typing without my doing much more than telling him the words to type. The password, like other typed words, is "stored" as a gesture, not as letters; when I change passwords I need to replace that gesture with another, and that takes learning/training time. (This also explains why we can sometimes type a password even when we can't remember what it was.)
    – keshlam
    Feb 11, 2014 at 16:30
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    Possibly important note: so-called “muscle memory” is stored in the brain, like all other memories. Muscles do not have any ability to remember anything.
    – KRyan
    Feb 11, 2014 at 22:54
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    I've never really heard "muscle memory" used for doing something incorrectly, without thinking, out of habit. It is mostly used for knowing how to do something without having to think about it. E.g., "I haven't done this for ages, but my muscle memory is still there."
    – AmeliaBR
    Feb 12, 2014 at 17:17

Where "muscle memory" is the cause, "force of habit" is the result:

behavior made involuntary or automatic by repeated practice

  • +1 - this is so true. I've used this phrase a hundred times (writing wrong years on checks) but didn't think of it. Which proves neuroplasticity; I never write checks anymore! Feb 11, 2014 at 0:33
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    And to clarify, in this situation the way the phrase would be used is to say you did something "out of force of habit": "I changed my password three days ago, but keep entering the old one out of force of habit."
    – AmeliaBR
    Feb 12, 2014 at 17:21

When I worked in IT we used to call it Password Autopilot. I don't think that's a real term though, just what some network admins call it.

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    "real term" needs definition. If someone uses it, its real. If a group uses it, then it has more credibility. What would you say is an unreal term?
    – Gusdor
    Feb 11, 2014 at 13:06
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    @Gusdor - An unreal term would be calling my large, white-haired, scruffy, plump neighbor a hipster-carebear, which I do, and I'm probably the only one in the world.
    – Eli
    Feb 11, 2014 at 19:27
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    +1 for Autopilot. It's the word that comes to mind when I enter the password I recently changed, write the year that just ended on a check (yes, I still pay with checks), or follow a turn that leads to my Mon.-Fri. job when I'm on a weekend excursion to a different destination. Feb 11, 2014 at 19:46
  • +1 Autopilot is used even outside the English word. We use this term (English term) for the situation when you drive your car from point A to B, but midway you take a wrong turn in direction C since you go to C very often.
    – yo'
    Feb 11, 2014 at 20:24
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    @Eli I don't know, sounds like you're not giving yourself enough credit for your neologism. I might just start using that phrase! Feb 11, 2014 at 23:16

In the past, this was attributed to facilitation: the lowering of the threshold for reflex conduction along a particular neural pathway especially from repeated use of that pathway; the increasing of the ease or intensity of a response by repeated stimulation. The idea was that with repeated performance of a task (e.g. writing out the year), it became a mindless task - one that could be performed with minimal mental engagement. This was well demonstrated scientifically in short-order cooks who, without thinking, knew exactly when to turn over eggs or pancakes while multitasking. The same could be said of entering passwords.

Now it is understood more in terms of brain plasticity, that is, there are specific long-lasting changes (more postsynaptic receptors, more dendritic connections, etc.) that actually occur in one's brain when a repetitive task is undertaken over the long term. Like "muscle memory", there is mindless "brain memory". A technical (and non-password specific but accurate) term for this habit/learned behavior phenomenon would be neuroplastic response.

  • While I've no doubt this is perfectly accurate and correct, I have a feeling the most common response to anyone using the phrase neuropastic response in conversation would be a blank stare, possibly accompanied by the word “Huh?”. Or, if you're in the UK, perhaps rather by the phrase, “Hmm. I could go for a pastie right now…”. Feb 11, 2014 at 0:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But it is "neuroplastic" response. Would this still elicit thoughts of pasties (are they that bad?)?
    – nxx
    Feb 11, 2014 at 0:23
  • @JanusBahsJacquet -lol,and I've no doubt you're right. (You did help me see a typo though.) Right now, I am among a number of people who love discussing neuroplasticity; it's a very hot topic, believe it or not. :) People believed for so long that as we aged, we lost brain function. To discover neuroplasticity in the elderly is, well, wonderful. Feb 11, 2014 at 0:25
  • Ah, it was a typo! In my scientific naïveté, I presumed neuropastic was probably just a fancy medical term I'd never heard before. Neuroplastic would probably yield far fewer blank stares, I'll admit. And no thoughts of pasties (which, incidentally, are quite delicious, @nxx). Feb 11, 2014 at 0:29

The adverbs I would use in such a situation are mindlessly "without intellectual involvement", and absentmindedly "resulting from preoccupation or absence of mind".

I absentmindedly typed my old password.
I keep mindlessly writing the wrong year on my checks.


Tamar Szabo Gendler characterized quite nicely this kind of automated response that thinking organisms naturally follow in their everyday situations, and called this alief, which she defines as the simple association rules we attach to actions, in constrast with belief, which are thoughtful reasoning that we use from time to time (most specifically when facing a new situation or when relying on aliefs fails).

Gendler distinguishes between belief and what she calls alief. The distinction can be appreciated either through examples or through a more theoretically informed elucidation of the notion of alief. Gendler herself offers myriad examples; here is a particularly simple one:

Unless one is particularly reflective regarding such matters, when one sees a sign exclaiming ‘glasses: $9.99’, one tends to form the belief that the glasses cost $10 but the alief that they cost $9. When one excitedly hurries to buy the glasses, even though one is in need of none, in all likelihood it is one’s alief that guides one’s action.

Consider another example. Every day I bike to my office. Today, however, they are predicting rain. (This virtually never happens around here.) Hearing this, I realize that I should take the car. I eat my breakfast, brush my teeth, reply to a couple of emails, take my notes, and head out. Once out the door, I assertively head towards the bike shed in my yard, never for a moment stopping to think that the car is parked on the street. It is not plausible to say that I believe the car is in the shed, nor that I believe I should bike to campus. No: I believe I should take the car, and believe it is not in the shed. My belief mismatches my behaviour—which frustrates causal explanation of the latter in terms of the former. What causally explains my behaviour is that I alieve I should bike to campus. This alief has been formed through years of pleasant routine associating mornings, sheds, bikes, campus, etc. Arguably it causally explains my shed-bike-retrieval behaviour most mornings, even on days my alief and belief converge, but is appreciated to do so only thanks to the occasional belief-behaviour mismatch.

For more infos, see: "Moral Motivation, Moral Phenomenology, and the Alief/Belief Distinction.", Uriah Kriegel, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (2012): 469-486.


I too have had the same issue. The best way to roll out new passwords, is to write it down for the first few days of the change, and then try to force yourself to remember it. This works for me, I also say the password out loud five times, this ensures a higher chance of remembering the password in future.

The term I used for this was "Complacent Subconscious" as this detailed how I felt about not remembering it. I was complacent, and also allowing my subconscious to control the old password that was stamped in my mind.

It gets even harder when you start adding ?@ symbols, so I use a story based system to construct my new password.

  • I have this mental image of me, sitting at my computer, saying out loud, 5 times, "I like big butts".... and I cannot lie, I will remember that password, my colleagues too ;-) .
    – rolfl
    Feb 11, 2014 at 19:37

How about I entered an old password reflexively (i.e., as a matter of reflex) or irreflectively / unreflectingly (without reflecting on what I should have been entering)?


When I do this, I am "on autopilot."


In the psychological research of human error, this is often called a "Capture Error" (a habit 'captures' the current stream of actions). Another example from Norman (1988) "The Psychology of Everyday Things":

"I was using a copying machine, and I was counting the pages. I found myself counting '1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King.' I have been playing cards recently."


It's by/from rote memory or just "rote"

  • His password behavior became more rote with every passing day.
    – user65549
    Feb 12, 2014 at 1:49

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