Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Tenacious Nature of Memory Binding for Arousing Negative Items

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Tenacious Nature of Memory Binding for Arousing Negative Items

Article excerpt

In two experiments, we investigated whether people are better or worse at updating memory for the location of emotional pictures than of neutral pictures. We measured participants' memories for the locations of both arousing negative pictures and neutral pictures while manipulating practice (encountering the same event repeatedly) and interference (encountering the same picture in a different location). Memory for the context of emotional items was less likely to be corrected when erroneous and was less likely to be correctly updated when the context changed. These results suggest that initial item-context binding is more tenacious for emotional items than for neutral items, even when such binding is incorrect.

Psychologists have long known that our ability to remember something over the long term depends on how we rehearse or reencounter that information (e.g., Bahrick, 1984; Ebbinghaus, 1885/1913; Lane, Mather, Villa, & Morita, 2001; Marsh, 2007). Much research also indicates that memory differs between events that are emotionally arousing and events that are neutral (for a review, see Kensinger, 2008). However, the interaction between emotional arousal and repeated exposure or practice has received less attention (but see Mather, in press). Is emotional arousal likely to enhance or to hinder the updating of event representations in memory when events change? For instance, imagine that a shocking crime is initially described in the media with the name of a suspect but is updated later when the actual perpetrator is discovered. Will readers be less likely to remember the correct perpetrator later than if the crime were not so emotionally arousing?

Understanding how emotion affects memory updating is important. We often have repeated experiences that contribute to our memories about particular people, places, or events. Over time, external reality may change, but memories do not always adjust. For instance, errors in memory for prose passages can be surprisingly persistent, even when people have the opportunity to relearn the original information. For example, in one classic study (Kay, 1955), once a week for 6 weeks, participants tried to remember and write down a story that they had heard in their first experimental session. Immediately after each recall attempt, they heard the story again, giving them the opportunity to correct their memory for any inaccuracies the next time they recalled it. Participants rarely corrected their memories and instead repeatedly made the same recall errors, omissions, and additions. If the stories had been emotional, such as the description of a crime from various eyewitnesses, would memory correction have been more successful or less successful? In our study, we examined whether memory updating would be more likely or less likely for contextual details of arousing negative items than of neutral items.

People usually remember items that elicit emotional reactions better than they do items that do not spark an emotional response (e.g., Kensinger, Garoff-Eaton, & Schacter, 2006; Mather & Knight, 2005; Ochsner, 2000). However, emotional arousal does not lead to more accurate memory for all of an event's details. For instance, in one study (Christianson & Loftus, 1991), participants watched a slideshow in which one slide depicted either a woman walking beside her bicycle or a woman lying wounded beside her bicycle. Participants who had seen the arousing version later had better memory for central details of the event, such as the color of the woman's coat, than did participants who had seen the neutral version. They also had poorer memory for peripheral details of the event, such as the color of a nearby car.

Accurate memory for events requires not only memory for individual items but also memory binding in order for one to remember the contextual details associated with various items and how the various items are related. Recent work has revealed that, in addition to having better item memory for emotionally arousing words or pictures, people also usually remember emotional items' colors or locations better than they do neutral items' colors or locations (D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004; Doerksen & Shimamura, 2001; Kensinger & Corkin, 2003a, 2003b; Kensinger et al. …

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