Psychologists have known for some time that mood can have an effect on memory: for example, we're more likely to remember events that are consistent with our current state of mind, and a bad mood is known to reduce the likelihood of people recalling false memories.
In the latter case, the theory is that a bad mood triggers a more sceptical, careful mode of processing, in contrast to the less vigilant, conceptual thinking style that characterises a good mood. Now Joseph Forgas and colleagues have taken this line of work out of the lab and into the real world, showing how the weather can affect our memory via its effects on our mood.
The researchers employed the help of a newsagents shop in Sydney and tested the ability of 73 shoppers to recall ten objects, including a piggy savings jar and toy cars, that were placed around the counter. The shoppers were quizzed after they left the store, with half of them tested on rainy, cloudy days and the others tested on bright, sunny days.
A mood questionnaire confirmed that the shoppers tested on rainy days were in a worse mood than those tested on a sunny day. And the memory test showed the rainy-day shoppers correctly identified three times as many items as the participants tested on a sunny day. Moreover, the rainy-day shoppers were less likely to have false memories for objects that hadn't been around the counter.
"This finding suggests that some allowance for such mood effects could be incorporated in applied domains such as legal, forensic, counselling and clinical practice," the researchers said.
A possible methodological flaw is that the rainy-day shoppers might have spent longer in the store, but a follow-up study showed that shoppers spent no longer in the shop on rainy days relative to sunny days.
This appears to be the latest example of an emerging trend among memory researchers to take their work out of the lab - just last year, researchers at Goldsmith's College performed an experiment at the London Dungeons to examine the effect of fear on eye-witness memory.
J FORGAS, L GOLDENBERG, C UNKELBACH (2009). Can bad weather improve your memory? An unobtrusive field study of natural mood effects on real-life memory. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (1), 254-257 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.08.014