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How Perceived Threat Can Impair Memory

How Perceived Threat Can Impair MemoryA new study suggests the memory of a traumatic experience can slow the adoption of a new behavior associated with the original event.

Experts have acknowledged that the details we remember surrounding a traumatic experience are sometimes hazy. In the new study, researchers found that consumers remember the least when they feel the most threatened.

The study findings are reported in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“We are looking to identify the factors that contribute to memory impairment,” write authors Amy N. Dalton, Ph.D., and doctoral student Li Huang. “In response to threats against their social identity, people will try to preserve or protect the group they identify with.”

One mental strategy threatened people use is what the authors term “motivated forgetting.”

In other words, to cope with trauma, the human brain fails to remember details associated with the event.

The authors said motivated forgetting often occurs when people feel threatened about their gender, race or ethnic group.

Consider an advertisement for breast cancer prevention. If the ad focuses on a woman’s vulnerability to the disease, she may feel more vulnerable to the disease and not remember the prevention message at all.

Across four studies and testing a number of variables, the researchers examined how (and if) negative memories are encoded in short- and long-term memory.

Their findings show that people are less likely to remember an advertisement if they feel threatened at the same time.

For example, students who read a newspaper article about how their university is underperforming were less likely to remember an ad offering a discount at the campus bookstore than students who read an unrelated (non-threatening) article.

Consider a special promotion offered to fans of a local sports team at a sports bar. If the team is having a bad season, dedicated fans may forget about the promotion and take their business elsewhere.

“Social-identity linked marketing is common nowadays and most work on the topic has examined factors like product or brand preference, but not memory.

“Because memory drives most consumer decisions, our research can help brands identify which factors can cause impairment,” the authors conclude.

Source: Journal of Consumer Research

Abstract of Brain photo by shutterstock.

How Perceived Threat Can Impair Memory

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). How Perceived Threat Can Impair Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 12 Dec 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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