Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Emotional Content Enhances True but Not False Memory for Categorized Stimuli

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Emotional Content Enhances True but Not False Memory for Categorized Stimuli

Article excerpt

Abstract Past research has shown that emotion enhances true memory, but that emotion can either increase or decrease false memory. Two theoretical possibilities-the distinctiveness of emotional stimuli and the conceptual relatedness of emotional content-have been implicated as being responsible for influencing both true and false memory for emotional content. In the present study, we sought to identify the mechanisms that underlie these mixed findings by equating the thematic relatedness of the study materials across each type of valence used (negative, positive, or neutral). In three experiments, categorically bound stimuli (e.g., funeral, pets, and office items) were used for this purpose. When the encoding task required the processing of thematic relatedness, a significant true-memory enhancement for emotional content emerged in recognition memory, but no emotional boost to false memory (Exp. 1). This pattern persisted for true memory with a longer retention interval between study and test (24 h), and false recognition was reduced for emotional items (Exp. 2). Finally, better recognition memory for emotional items once again emerged when the encoding task (arousal ratings) required the processing of the emotional aspect of the study items, with no emotional boost to false recognition (Exp. 3). Together, these findings suggest that when emotional and neutral stimuli are equivalently high in thematic relatedness, emotion continues to improve true memory, but it does not override other types of grouping to increase false memory.

Keywords Memory . Emotion

Emotional contents are remembered better than nonemotional contents. This outcome has been reported both quantitatively, indicating that emotional contents are recalled or recognized better than neutral contents (see Buchanan & Adolphs, 2002), as well as qualitatively, indicating that memory is richer in detail for emotional than for nonemotional contents (Doerksen & Shimamura, 2001; Kensinger & Corkin, 2003). This memory enhancement for emotional contents is also supported by neuroimaging and neuropsychological data that have indicated that emotional and neutral contents engage different cognitive and neural mechanisms (see Hamann, 2001).

In contrast to the extensive evidence for the effect of emotion on studied events, it is not yet clear how emotion modulates false memory of nonstudied events. Inasmuch as falsely remembering events that have never occurred is a pervasive phenomenon (see Gallo, 2006), a study of whether and how emotional experience in particular may be falsely remembered constitutes an important question. Past research has shown that emotional events can be falsely remembered. For example, Laney and Loftus (2008) assessed the emotional content of true and false memories for childhood events and showed that false memories of emotional events could be implanted via a suggestive manipulation. They also compared true and false memories on several emotional dimensions (e.g., emotion specificity and intensity) and found that those implanted false memories were as subjectively emotional as true memories in most dimensions, indicating that the substantial emotionality of an event does not necessarily ensure memory accuracy. Bajo, Fleminger, and Kopelman (2010) also recently showed that the autobiographical memories of memory-disordered patients have an affective bias in which confabulated memories often have more of an emotional tone to the patients than do true memories.

Yet there is no consensus regarding whether emotional content affects the likelihood of memory distortion. Past research that has directly examined the effect of emotion on false memories has reported mixed findings, in which emotional valence has either increased (e.g., Gallo, Foster, & Johnson, 2009) or decreased (e.g., Kensinger & Corkin, 2004; Pesta, Murphy, & Sanders, 2001) false memories. These divergent findings in the literature, for the most part, seem to depend on the types of stimuli employed and the aspects of the stimuli that become salient during encoding. …

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