Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Emotional Memory Effect: Differential Processing or Item Distinctiveness?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Emotional Memory Effect: Differential Processing or Item Distinctiveness?

Article excerpt

A color-naming task was followed by incidental free recall to investigate how emotional words affect attention and memory. We compared taboo, nonthreatcning negative-affect, and neutral words across three experiments. As compared with neutral words, taboo words led to longer color-naming times and better memory in both within- and between-subjects designs. Color naming of negative-emotion nontaboo words was slower than color naming of neutral words only during block presentation and at relatively short interstimulus intervals (ISIs). The nontaboo emotion words were remembered better than neutral words following blocked and random presentation and at both long and short ISIs, but only in mixed-list designs. Our results support multifactor theories of the effects of emotion on attention and memory. As compared with neutral words, threatening stimuli received increased attention, poststimulus elaboration, and benefit from item distinctiveness, whereas nonthreatening emotional stimuli benefited only from increased item distinctiveness.

The emotional response associated with an experience has a large impact on memory for that experience. Emotional narratives are remembered better than comparable neutral narratives (Laney, Campbell, Heuer, & Reisberg, 2004), a series of emotional slides is better remembered than a neutral series (Heuer & Reisberg, 1990), emotional words are remembered better than neutral words (Kleinsmith & Kaplan, 1963), and emotional life experiences may lead to detailed flashbulb-like memories (Brown & Kulik, 1977). There are numerous theories to explain the impact of emotion on memory, including the attentionnarrowing hypothesis (Easterbrook, 1959), Christianson's (1992a, 1992b) two-stage model, and most recently, MacKay's binding hypothesis (MacKay et al., 2004). These hypotheses share the idea that emotional material captures and holds the attention of the observer, often at the expense of peripheral material. For example, Christianson argued that an emotional event leads to an automatic, preattentive response during which die emotional content of the event is extracted. Later, controlled-elaborative processes lead to increased storage of information central to the event, to the detriment of surrounding information.

However, some have argued that emotional materials are relatively rare or unusual, suggesting that at least some of the memory effects attributed to emotion actually resulted from item distinctiveness (McCloskey, Wible, & Cohen, 1988; Schmidt, 2002). Similarly, Reisberg and Heuer (2004) argued that emotional materials often (but not always) contain attention magnets that impair the processing of background information. Others have argued tiiat good memory for emotional words is simply an artifact resulting from differences in die ease of organizing emotional and neutral words (Talmi & Moscovitch, 2004). The research presented below was designed to investigate how emotion, attention, and item distinctiveness combine to influence memory for words.

Research comparing memory for emotional versus neutral words has a long history. Early researchers investigated paired-associate memory for emotional words, with much of their focus on whether the superior recall of emotional over neutral words required a delayed retention test (Kleinsmith & Kaplan, 1963, 1964; Maltzman, Kantor, & Langdon, 1966). However, experimental design emerged as a moderating factor in the influence of emotion on memory (Walker & Tarte, 1963). Most researchers employed heterogeneous, or mixed, lists of emotional and neutral words. When memory for a homogeneous list of emotional words is compared with that for a list of neutral words, the memory advantage typically enjoyed by the emotional words sometimes disappears (Dewhurst & Parry, 2000; Hadley & MacKay, 2006).

A common interpretation of stimulus effects found only in mixed-list designs is that they result from item distinctiveness. …

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