Repetition is behind our improved memory for emotional events

December, 2011

A new study concludes that positive events tend to be remembered better than negative, but the more important finding is that being repeatedly reminded of the event is the main factor behind improved memory for emotional experiences.

Certainly experiences that arouse emotions are remembered better than ones that have no emotional connection, but whether negative or positive memories are remembered best is a question that has produced equivocal results. While initial experiments suggested positive events were remembered better than negative, more recent studies have concluded the opposite.

The idea that negative events are remembered best is consistent with a theory that negative emotion signals a problem, leading to more detailed processing, while positive emotion relies more heavily on general scripts.

However, a new study challenges those recent studies, on the basis of a more realistic comparison. Rather than focusing on a single public event, to which some people have positive feelings while others have negative feelings (events used have included the OJ Simpson trial, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a single baseball championship game), the study looked at two baseball championships each won by different teams.

The experiment involved 1,563 baseball fans who followed or attended the 2003 and 2004 American League Championship games between the New York Yankees (2003 winners) and the Boston Red Sox (2004 winners). Of the fans, 1,216 were Red Sox fans, 218 were Yankees fans, and 129 were neutral fans. (Unfortunately the selection process disproportionately collected Red Sox fans.)

Participants were reminded who won the championship before answering questions on each game. Six questions were identical for the two games: the final score for each team, the winning and losing pitchers (multiple choice of five pitchers for each team), the location of the game, and whether the game required extra innings. Participants also reported how vividly they remembered the game, and how frequently they had thought about or seen media concerning the game.

Both Yankee and Red Sox fans remembered more details about their team winning. They also reported more vivid memories for the games their team won. Accuracy and vividness were significantly correlated. Fans also reported greater rehearsal of the game their team won, and again, rehearsal and accuracy were significantly correlated.

Analysis of the data revealed that rehearsal completely mediated the correlation between accuracy and fan type, and partially mediated the correlation between vividness and fan type.

In other words, improved memory for emotion-arousing events has everything to do with how often you think about or are reminded of the event.

PTSD, for example, is the negative memory extreme. And PTSD is characterized by the unavoidable rehearsal of the event over and over again. Each repetition makes memory for the event stronger.

In the previous studies referred to earlier, media coverage provided a similarly unavoidable repetition.

While most people tend to recall more positive than negative events (and this tendency becomes greater with age), individuals who are depressed or anxious show the opposite tendency.

So whether positive or negative events are remembered better depends on you, as well as the event.

When it comes down to it, I'm not sure it's really a helpful question - whether positive or negative events are remembered better. An interesting aspect of public events is that their portrayal often changes over time, but this is just a more extreme example of what happens with private events as well — as we change over time, so does our attitude toward those events. Telling friends about events, and receiving their comments on them, can affect our emotional response to events, as well as having an effect on our memory of those events.

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