Discrete Emotions and Memory

A growing body of research supports the view that discrete emotions have distinct effects on memory. Research on both adults and children suggests, for instance, that positive memories encompass a broad range of information whereas negative memories focus on specific information relevant to preventing (fear), reversing (anger), or adjusting to (sadness) goal failure. As one example, Berntsen (2002) had independent judges code the content of adults' most negative and positive autobiographical memories for central and peripheral information. Negative memories focused primarily on central information, as would be predicted by arousal-based models, but positive memories did not. Instead, positive memories tended to include a wide range of information. Other studies have shown that negative memories are less error-prone than positive memories. For example, Kensinger and Schacter (2006) had Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans recall the Sox's win in the American League playoff in October 2004 after 6 days and again approximately 6 months later. Although the fans of the winning Red Sox were more confident of their memories, the Yankees fans recalled details related to the game more accurately than did Red Sox fans (also see Levine & Bluck, 2004).

Turning to discrete negative emotional states and memory, several investigators have found that fearful people display enhanced memory for threat-related information and poorer memory for threat-irrelevant details. For example, Wessel and Merckelbach (1998) investigated the effects of fear on memory in a sample of spider-phobics. Phobic and low-fear control participants were shown a bulletin board to which central (pictures of spiders) and peripheral (pictures of babies and pens) stimuli were attached. Not only did the spider-phobics display an increase in physiological markers of fear when viewing the display, but when asked to recall the display, spider-phobics showed enhanced memory for the central, threatening information (i.e., the spider pictures) and impaired memory for peripheral, nonthreatening information (i.e., baby and pen pictures). A positive association between fear and memory for threatening stimuli also has been noted by investigators assessing the accuracy and completeness of eyewitness testimony. For instance, "weapon focus" refers to witnesses' tendency to focus on and remember the weapon used to commit a crime, often at the expense of memory for other, possibly more peripheral, information (e.g., Kramer, Buckhout, & Eugenio, 1990; Loftus, Loftus, & Messo, 1987; Steblay, 1992).

In another line of work, evidence indicates that chronically fearful individuals evince attentional and memory biases consistent with this discrete emotional state. Clinically anxious people have been found to exhibit hypersensitivity to threat-related information. Mathews and Klug (1993), for instance, used an emotional Stroop paradigm to assess color-naming latencies (a sign of greater attention) for positive and negative threat-related words, for positive and negative words unrelated to threat, and for neutral words. Participants included patients with a variety of anxiety disorders and controls. Anxious patients took longer to name the colors of both positive and negative threat-related words (but not positive or negative words unrelated to threat) than to name the colors of neutral words. Selective retrieval of threatening information also has been found (though less consistently) in studies using implicit memory measures (for reviews see MacLeod & Mathews, 2004; Mineka, Rafaeli, & Yovel, 2003). For example, Mathews, Richards, and Eysenck (1989) had clinically anxious people and controls listen to and write down homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings). One of the homophones had a threatening meaning, and the other had a neutral meaning (e.g., die and dye). Anxious participants were more likely than controls to write down the threatening meaning upon hearing the word, suggesting that threatening information may be more accessible in memory for these people.

In contrast, people in a sad or depressed mood asked to recall autobiographical events tend to focus not on sources of threat but on negative outcomes such as personal losses and defeats. For example, Lyubomirsky, Caldwell, and Nolen-Hoeksema (1998) found that moderately sad or depressed people recalled more negative autobiographical events associated with loss (e.g., failing a test, losing a girlfriend, their parents' divorce) than did nondepressed people. Moreover, although depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are both characterized by the presence of intrusive memories, the content of the intrusive information for these two disorders differs. Consistent with the differing motivations associated with sadness and fear, depression is characterized by rumination on past negative outcomes and their consequences for the self, whereas PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories related to past threats to safety (e.g., Lyubomirsky et al., 1998; Reynolds & Brewin, 1999; Watkins & Teasdale, 2001).

Levine and Burgess (1997) conducted a study to test more directly the predictions derived from appraisal theories concerning the effects of discrete emotions on memory. The researchers contrasted discrete emotions in the same study to see if each emotion would lead to enhanced memory for particular kinds of information. Emotions were evoked in undergraduates by randomly assigning grades of A or D on a surprise quiz. Immediately afterward, students participated in what they believed to be an unrelated study during which they heard and later recalled a narrative. Finally, they rated how happy, angry, and sad they had felt when they received their quiz grade. Participants who received the A (and obviously reported being happy) demonstrated enhanced memory for the narrative as a whole. In contrast, participants who reported feeling primarily sad or primarily angry (all of whom received the D) tended to recall specific types of information. As predicted, those who reported feeling sad about their grade recalled significantly more information concerning event outcomes in the narrative than did participants who reported feeling angry about their grade. The latter individuals showed a nonsignificant tendency to recall more information about the protagonist's goals than did sad participants. Finally, a significant positive correlation was found between the intensity of anger reported and the amount of information that participants recalled about the goals of the lead character in the narrative.

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