We all carry products of life circumstances in the form of emotional memories. Some memories are positive, others are painful recollections that we would rather forget.
A new study suggests the factors that influence the way memories affect us include gender, personality and the methods used to moderate feelings.
“We’re looking at traits that are associated with the way that people process the emotional world and the way that they respond to it,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dr. Florin Dolcos.
“We wanted to look not only at how personality traits might influence what and how people remember, but also to examine how that impacts their (subsequent) emotional state.”
Previous studies of personality and its relationship to autobiographical memory have tended to focus only on women and only on negative memories, Dolcos said. Researchers have been drawn to women because they are more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disorders such as depression or anxiety, which are associated with an increased focus on negative emotions.
Investigators have found that individuals with strong neurotic behavior — the tendency to focus on negative emotions, particularly in times of stress — also “are more disposed to become ill with affective disorders like depression and anxiety-related problems.”
However, prior research efforts have not looked at differences between men and women, the relationship between positive and negative memories, the frequency with which individuals recall specific memories and the vividness of their memories. Nor have most such studies examined the strategies people use to regulate their emotions when calling to mind positive and negative autobiographical memories.
Such strategies include suppression (trying to blunt or hide negative emotions) and reappraisal (trying to adopt a new perspective on unpleasant memories).
In the new study, Dolcos and colleagues examined all these variables with findings suggesting a complex interplay of factors that contribute to mood in healthy young men and women.
The researchers used questionnaires and verbal cues to assess personality and to elicit more than 100 autobiographical memories in each of 71 participants (38 of them women). Investigators learned that both men and women who were high in extroversion (gregarious, assertive, stimulus-seeking) tended to remember more positive than negative life events.
Men who were high in neuroticism tended to recall a greater proportion of negative memories than men who were low in neuroticism, while women who were high in neuroticism tended to return to the same negative memories again and again, a process called rumination.
Rumination is known to be associated with depression.
“Depressed people recollect those negative memories and as a result they feel sad,” he said. “And as a result of feeling sad, the tendency is to have more negative memories recollected. It’s a kind of a vicious circle.”
Although none of the study participants had been diagnosed with depression or other emotional disorders, both male and female participants were likely to experience a lower mood after recalling negative autobiographical memories.
Typically, positive memories predicted a more positive mood, although the link was indirect and influenced by extroversion.
The most pronounced differences between men and women involved the effects of the emotional strategies they used when recalling negative autobiographical memories.
Men who tended to make an effort to think differently about their memories were likely to recall more positive memories than their peers, while men who tried to suppress their negative emotional responses saw no pronounced effect on the recall of positive or negative memories.
In women, however, suppression was significantly associated with the recall of negative memories and with a lower mood afterward.
“I think that the most important thing here is that we really need to look concomitantly at sex- and personality-related differences and to acknowledge that these factors have a different impact on the way we record our memories, on what we are doing with our memories, and later, how what we are doing with our memories is impacting our emotional well-being,” said co-author and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Sanda Dolcos.
The findings are instructive for both men and women, she said. Being more outgoing, interrupting rumination and using reappraisal seems to work best for men and women as a strategy for dealing with negative memories and cherishing the positive ones, she said.