Discrete Emotions and Memory in Children

The research reviewed above indicates that children's emotional experience of events depends on how they appraise those events. The manner in which children appraise a potentially stressful incident has implications for what they consider to be central versus irrelevant (peripheral) during the incident and hence what they are likely to remember. Children's appraisals are similar to those of adults in many respects, but are less complex. Children also have more limited resources available to regulate their emotions when exposed to potential stressors. As a result, children are unlikely to have attentional resources available to monitor a broad range of information during an emotional experience and instead may direct their attention almost exclusively toward central information consistent with their appraisals. These ideas lay the foundation for our primary hypothesis concerning discrete emotions and memory in children. Specifically, we contend that effects of discrete emotions on memory will be stronger in children than in adults, with children primarily remembering information about a negative emotional experience that is consistent with their appraisals and goals to the exclusion of information not directly relevant to their appraisals and goals.

To date, this hypothesis has not been tested directly. In fact, only a paucity of scientific research has actually considered discrete emotions when investigating children's memory, and none has systematically considered whether discrete emotions differentially affect children's memory content. Nonetheless, a few studies have addressed the relation between emotional valence, or discrete emotions, and children's memory. The findings are consistent with the notion that the nature of children's emotional experience affects the types of information they attend to and recall.

In one investigation, Fivush et al (2003) compared 5- to 12-year-old children's memories of positive experiences (e.g., family vacations and school trips) and of stressful negative experiences (e.g., interpersonal violence, serious illness, medical procedures). Memory content was coded with respect to mention of persons, places, objects, actions, descriptions, and internal states. Although the overall amount of information recalled was equivalent across positive and negative experiences, the negative memory reports were more coherent and included more information about children's thoughts and emotions. Positive memories, in contrast, included a wide range of information about people, actions, and descriptions (also see Fivush & Sales, 2004). These findings are consistent with the research on adults showing that people experiencing positive emotions attend to, and remember, a broader range of information than do people experiencing negative emotions (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998).

In another study, Baker-Ward, Eaton, and Banks (2005) examined 10-year-old children's memory for a soccer tournament in which they had participated. Although objectively all children had experienced the same event, the outcomes and children's emotional reactions varied. That is, some children won, others lost. When children's memory was tested shortly after the game, the overall amount of information recalled did not differ between those who had won versus those who had lost. However, children who won reported more details about the game itself, whereas children who lost reported more interpretive or evaluative details (e.g., why the game was lost). Thus, children's emotional reactions to the outcome of the game appeared to differentially direct their recounting of the experience toward particular types of information. Of interest, BakerWard et al. (2005) commented that some of the children who lost the tournament reported feeling sad, whereas others reported being angry. The researchers did not examine whether the content of memory differed between these two groups of children. Because both of these groups lost but appraised the outcome differently, such an analysis would enable at least one test of whether and how children's attention and potential memory may vary depending on the discrete emotion experienced.

Turning to discrete negative emotions, Rice, Levine, and Pizarro (in press) examined the effects of sadness, and of instructions to regulate sadness, on children's memory for educational material. Seven- and 10-year-olds watched sad or neutral film clips. Those who watched the sad clips were then instructed either to emotionally disengage by suppressing their feelings and expression of sadness or to engage in problem solving concerning their feelings. A control group received no emotion-regulation instructions. Children then watched a neutral-toned, educational video and were later tested for their memory of the educational material. Finally, children who had watched the sad film clip were asked whether they had done anything to make themselves feel better while watching that film. Results indicated that children instructed to disengage from their feelings of sadness recalled more details concerning the educational video than did children receiving instructions directing their attention to the sad film (i.e., problem-solving instructions) or no emotion regulation instructions. In addition, children who reported having used a cognitive strategy to regulate their emotions during the sad film remembered more educational material than children who reported not having regulated emotion. Given that the content of the educational video was not relevant to motivations or appraisals associated with sadness and loss, the poorer memory of sad children who were not instructed to emotionally disengage is not surprising and is consistent with the view that memory for information peripheral to an emotional state is reduced.

In a study described briefly earlier, Quas and Lench (2007) assessed 5- and 6-year-olds' memory for a fear-eliciting video clip and found that increases in children's heart rate were positively related to the accuracy of their responses to closed-ended questions about the video. Virtually all of the questions about the video, which depicted four boys running on a bridge as a train approached, concerned central features of the event (e.g., how many boys were running, whether the train stopped, whether the boys saw the smoke from the approaching train). The finding that greater heart rate predicted better memory is thus consistent with the view that fear, induced as a result of observing the video, focused children's attention on information in the video concerning the source of the threat and the characters' strategy to escape the threat. Unfortunately, children's memory was not tested for peripheral information. Thus, there is no way of knowing whether a negative correlation would have emerged between children's heart rate during the video and their memory for information in the video that was unrelated to threat.

A final study, although not supportive of our hypothesis, remains noteworthy because the researchers in fact manipulated emotional state and tested children's memory for emotional information, even though the emotional state elicited and the emotion associated with the to-be-remembered event did not match. Potts, Morse, Felleman, and Masters (1986) induced emotion in 7- to 9-year-olds by having them think of a time that they had felt happy, sad, or neutral. Either before or after the emotion induction, children listened to a story in which two protagonists had negative (e.g., being yelled at by a neighbor) or positive (e.g., receiving a cookie from a friend's mother) experiences. Children's memory for the story was tested via free and cued recall and recognition. Overall, children recalled more emotional than neutral material; however, the specific emotion induced did not affect the amount of story information remembered. The researchers did not assess whether the content of children's memory varied based on the emotion induced, making it difficult to determine whether experiencing the particular emotion directed children's attention toward specific story details and therefore affected their memory.

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