Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Density Explanation of Valence Asymmetries in Recognition Memory

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Density Explanation of Valence Asymmetries in Recognition Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 March 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract The density hypothesis states that positive information is more similar than negative information, resulting in higher density of positive information in mental representations. The present research applies the density hypothesis to recognition memory to explain apparent valence asymmetries in recognition memory, namely, a recognition advantage for negative information. Previous research explained this negativity advantage on the basis of valence-induced affect. We predicted that positive information's higher density impairs recognition performance. Two old-new word recognition experiments tested whether differential density between positive and negative stimuli creates a negativity advantage in recognition memory, over and above valence-induced affect. In Experiment 1, participants better discriminated negative word stimuli (i.e., less false alarms) and showed a response bias towards positive words. Regression analyses showed the asymmetry to be function of density and not of valence. Experiment 2 varied stimulus density orthogonal to valence. Again, discriminability and response bias were a function of density and not of valence. We conclude that the higher density of positive information causes an apparent valence asymmetry in recognition memory.

Keywords Valence asymmetries . Negativity bias . Recognition . Density . Affect

Distinguishing between positive and negative information is essential for humans to navigate complex environments (Lewin, 1935); unsurprisingly, this distinction fundamentally influences human cognition as well. Previous research identified numerous asymmetries in the perception, processing, elaboration, storage, and retrieval of positive and negative information. These valence asymmetries are commonly explained by the affective potential of evaluative information (see Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001,for a review). Accordingly, the affective reaction of the organism alters cognitive information processing. A prominent example is the notion that negative information triggers deeper and more accommodative processing styles (Bless & Fiedler, 2006; Taylor, 1991).

A different perspective on valence asymmetries is provided by the density hypothesis (Unkelbach, Fiedler, Bayer, Stegmüller, & Danner, 2008), which claims that positive and negative information differ ecologically regarding their diversity. That is, besides the Bhot^ potential of evaluative information to influence emotions, motivations, and behavior (e.g., such as approach and avoidance), it is assumed that there are systematic Bcold^ differences between positive and negative information. These differences should not depend on the information's energetic potential, for example, due to its self- or survival relevance. Additionally, these differences exist independent of the emotional, motivational, or behavioral states of the organism (e.g., Lepper, 1994). Specifically, Unkelbach and colleagues suggested that there is a smaller diversity and therefore a higher similarity among positive information compared to negative information, leading to higher Bdensity^ of positive information in mental representations. They argued that this ecological difference might explain observed valence asymmetries in processing of evaluative information. For example, the authors showed that positive information is processed faster than negative information; not because of differential affective reactions, but because of the differential density of positive and negative information (Unkelbach et al., 2008a;Experiment2). Here, we test whether the differential density of evaluative information influences recognition performance.

There is substantial evidence that stimulus similarity influences recognition memory. For example, perceptual recognition research shows that recognition is less accurate for prototypical stimuli (e.g., Busey & Tunnicliff, 1999); it is difficult to distinguish old from new stimuli when stimuli are highly similar. …

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