Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Taboo Words: The Effect of Emotion on Memory for Peripheral Information

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Taboo Words: The Effect of Emotion on Memory for Peripheral Information

Article excerpt

In three experiments, we examined memory for peripheral information that occurred in the same context as emotion-inducing information. In the first two experiments, participants studied either a sentence (Experiment 1) or a pair of words (Experiments 2A-2C) containing a neutral peripheral word, as well as a neutral, negative-valence, or taboo word, to induce an emotional response. At retrieval, the participants were asked to recall the neutral peripheral word from a sentence fragment or emotion-inducing word cue. In Experiment 3, we presented word pairs at encoding and tested memory with associative recognition. In all three experiments, memory for peripheral words was enhanced when it was encoded in the presence of emotionally arousing taboo words but not when it was encoded in the presence of words that were only negative in valence. These data are consistent with priority-binding theory (MacKay et al., 2004) and inconsistent with the attention-narrowing hypothesis (Easterbrook, 1959), as well as with object-based binding theory (Mather, 2007).

Although some aspects of emotion appear to be universal, others are culture-specific (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002). Furthermore, one's emotional state is influenced both by current circumstances and by one's disposition (Wood, Maltby, Stewart, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). Given the importance of emotion to the human condition, it is not surprising that emotion plays a key role in our ability to remember events (Buchanan & Adolphs, 2002; Hamann, 2001). Indeed, one's emotional state during encoding can serve as a key retrieval cue for past events, even if those events were not the cause of the emotional state (Bartlett & Santrock, 1979), and events that induce emotional responses, whether arousing or valenced, are remembered better than events that do not induce emotional responses (Kensinger, 2004; Kensinger & Corkin, 2003).

Although there is substantial evidence that emotional events are remembered better than neutral events, applied and theoretical considerations suggest that it is also important to understand how experiencing emotional events impacts memory for other events that occur in the same context. In applied domains, it is often important to understand how affective responses to circumstances such as witnessing a robbery or being in a car accident impact memory for aspects of those events that do not cause an affective response, such as what a perpetrator looked like or the events that preceded a car accident, because those events can be essential in a legal setting. In the theoretical domain, understanding how emotional responses influence memory for events that occurred in close temporal proximity or simultaneously with the emotion-inducing event can be used to test theories of why emotion enhances memory for emotional events. The research reported in this article was designed with the latter purpose in mind.

In order to study the influence of emotional events on memory for other events, it is necessary to operationally distinguish between what constitutes an emotional event and what constitutes nonemotional events that occur in the same context. Prior research has generally divided events into central information and peripheral information. Central information is usually defined as the stimulus that produces an emotional response, whereas peripheral information is typically defined as the information that is not directly related to the emotion-inducing central stimulus (Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, & Schacter, 2007). Thus, the definition of central event can include events related to the central stimulus, such as the visual details of a stimulus that evokes emotion (Kensinger et al., 2007). For the purposes of the present research, we adopted the operational definitions used by Kensinger, Piguet, Krendl, and Corkin (2005): Central information is the portion of an event that produces an emotional reaction, whereas peripheral information comprises the elements of an event that are unrelated to the source of arousal. …

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