Negative emotions fade faster
This is a simple — and wonderful — quirk of how memory works.
It’s the fact that, on average, negative emotions are forgotten quicker than positive.
A typical study asks people to write about things that have happened to them over a period of months.
Then they are asked to recall these events up to five years later.
A curious thing happens for most (non-depressed) people: the negative things are forgotten at a higher rate than the positive.
Psychologists aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but it seems to be part of our natural psychological immune system which helps protect against life’s inevitable knocks.
When a memory is ‘misattributed’ some original true aspect of a memory becomes distorted through time, space or circumstances.
Some examples that have been studied in the lab are:
- Misattributing the source of memories. In one study participants with ‘normal’ memories regularly made the mistake of thinking they had acquired a trivial fact from a newspaper, when actually the experimenters had supplied it (Schacter, Harbluk, & McLachlan, 1984).
- Misattributing a face to the wrong context. Studies have shown that memories can become blended together, so that faces and circumstances are merged.
Memory expert Daniel Schacter suggests that misattributions may actually be useful to us (Schacter, 1999).
The ability to extract, abstract and generalise our experience enables us to apply lessons we’ve learnt in one domain to another.
The consistency bias
New experiences don’t fall on a blank slate; we don’t merely record the things we see around us.
Instead everything we do, have done to us, think or experience, is affected by past thoughts and things that have already happened to us.
One strong psychological drive humans have is to be consistent.
This, then, can lead to a consistency bias: we have a tendency to reconstruct the past to make it more compatible with our current world-view.
For example, as people get older, on average, they get politically more conservative.
Despite this people report always having had roughly the same views (Markus, 1986).
The recall effect
Many memories which have the scent of authenticity may turn out to be misremembered, if not totally fictitious events, if only we could check.
But, does the long passage of time warp the memory, or is there some more active process that causes the change?
In one experiment participants had memories laid down in a carefully controlled way to test this out (St. Jacques & Schacter, 2013).
The results showed that people’s memories were both enhanced and distorted by the process of recall. This shows that merely recalling a memory is enough to strengthen it.
This is one aspect of the fact that memory is an active, reconstructive process; recalling something is not a neutral act, it strengthens that memory in comparison to the others.