Working Memory Can Play Vital Role in Staying Optimistic

Working memory — the ability to store and recall information needed to carry out cognitive tasks — appears to play a vital role in coping with negative life events and maintaining a positive outlook, according to a new study by researchers at the University of North Florida (UNF).

The research is one of the first to look at the role of working memory in the context of depression and the character trait of optimism.

“There is a growing body of research supporting the role of working memory in emotional regulation,” said Dr. Tracy Alloway, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida, who conducted the study with UNF graduate student John Horton.

“We know that those with clinical depression have difficulties in suppressing irrelevant negative information, while those with high working memory are able to ignore negative emotions. But we wanted to investigate whether you see a similar pattern in healthy adults across the lifespan.”

The researchers evaluated more than 2,000 nonclinical volunteers, between the ages of 16 and 79 years from a wide demographic range. They were asked questions, like “I think about how sad I feel.”

Participants also answered questions about their dispositional optimism to determine whether they were typically more optimistic, believing in positive future outcomes, or typically more pessimistic, holding to a more fatalistic outcome.

The researchers found that age is a major factor in determining pessimism. Younger individuals (late teens and 20s) had higher pessimism scores compared to the older participants. In fact, nearly 20 percent of individual differences in pessimistic outlooks was explained by age.

They also found that a pessimistic outlook predicts depression. Almost 85 percent of those who reported feeling depressed had negative views about the future. They believed that “If something can go wrong for me, it will” and “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”

Furthermore, the findings revealed that having a strong working memory can help refocus a person’s attention on a positive outcome. It is able to counter a pessimistic outlook and focus on an optimistic perspective.

While prior studies on this topic have used visual working memory tasks that involve emotional content — happy or sad faces — in this study, working memory was measured using a shape task. The use of stimuli that didn’t involve any emotional content allowed the researchers to disentangle working memory capacity from the emotional content of the stimuli.

The researchers found that dispositional optimism determines our outlook and whether we succumb to depressive symptoms. Participants who were more pessimistic, believing that “if something can go wrong for me, it will,” reported feeling more depressed.

“Human behavior is goal-directed and when we face an impediment to achieving a goal, we can respond with either a pessimistic outlook or an optimistic one,” said Alloway.

According to the theory known as “negativity bias,” our brain’s default mode is to focus attention on negative stimuli because it’s linked to survival. For example, when there are competing stimuli of a snake and a flower on the ground, we will focus on the snake, rather than the flower, in order to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation.

However, a strong working memory can refocus attention on a positive outcome.

“A strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook,” she said. “This is good news, especially for younger individuals (teens and those in their 20s), who had higher pessimism scores compared to their older peers.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Source: University of North Florida