When the Red Sox Shocked the Yankees: Comparing Negative and Positive Memories

By Kensinger, Elizabeth A.; Schacter, Daniel L. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

When the Red Sox Shocked the Yankees: Comparing Negative and Positive Memories


Kensinger, Elizabeth A., Schacter, Daniel L., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


The present study examined whether positive or negative valence affects the amount of detail remembered about a public event, and whether positive or negative valence alters other memory characteristics (consistency, vividness, and confidence). Memory for the final game of the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees 2004 American League playoff series was assessed in individuals who found the event highly positive, highly negative, or neutral (i.e., Red Sox fans, Yankees fans, and fans of neither team). Valence did not affect the number of personal details recalled, but it did affect memory consistency (greatest for the negative-event group) and memory overconfidence (apparent only in the positive-event group). These results indicate that positive events can be remembered with the same types of distortions that have been shown previously for negative events. Moreover, it appears that, in comparison with negative valence, positive valence sometimes can be associated with decreased memory consistency and increased memory overconfidence.

Information associated with positive or negative affect often is more likely to be recalled than information lacking emotional importance (see Buchanan & Adolphs, 2002; Hamann, 2001). Moreover, individuals tend to believe that they remember emotional experiences more vividly than nonemotional ones. "Flashbulb memories" lie at the extreme end of the spectrum; individuals sometimes believe that they have maintained almost photographicquality memories of highly emotional, consequential, and surprising public events (see Brown & Kulik, 1977).

In nearly all studies investigating the effects of emotion on memory for public events, researchers have assessed memory for negative events, including terrorist attacks (see, e.g., Hudson et al., 2004; Paradis, Solomon, Florer, & Thompson, 2004; Wolters & Goudsmit, 2005), assassinations or deaths (see, e.g., Brown & Kulik, 1977; Christianson, 1989; Pillemer, 1984), and space shuttle explosions (see, e.g., Bohannon, 1988; Kensinger, Krendl, & Corkin, 2006). The results of these studies have demonstrated that people's memories for highly negative public events typically are associated with high vividness and confidence in memory details, although the details individuals recall are not always consistent or accurate (see Schmolck, Buffalo, & Squire, 2000; Talarico & Rubin, 2003). However, the research results have not provided insight into whether these memory characteristics are similar for highly positive events and for highly negative ones.

At least in the laboratory, the mnemonic qualities associated with positive and negative affect often differ. Negative stimuli tend to be remembered with an enhanced sense of vividness and in greater detail than neutral or positive stimuli (see, e.g., Dewhurst & Parry, 2000; Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, & Schacter, 2006; Ochsner, 2000). Positive stimuli, in contrast, often are remembered with only a feeling of familiarity, with general, nonspecific information (see, e.g., Bless & Schwarz, 1999; Ochsner, 2000). Positive mood, more than negative mood, also has been associated with an increase in memory reconstruction errors. This may be because individuals in a happy mood rely either on gist-based information or on heuristics, whereas individuals in a negative mood are more likely to focus on the specific details of information (see, e.g., Bless et al., 1996; Storbeck & Clore, 2005).

It is unclear to what degree these laboratory findings extend to real-life events infused with emotional importance. The results of research on autobiographical memory often have supported a conclusion that contrasts with results obtained via assessments of memory for stimuli presented within the laboratory: that positive memories are more vivid than negative ones (see, e.g., D'Argembeau, Comblain, & Van der Linden, 2003; Schaefer & Philippot, 2005; Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003).

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