Human memory has a pervasive emotional bias – and it’s probably a good thing. That’s according to psychologists Timothy Ritchie and colleagues.
In a new study published in the journal Memory, the researchers say that people from diverse cultures experience the ‘fading affect bias’ (FAB), the tendency for negative emotions to fade away more quickly than positive ones in our memories.
The FAB has been studied previously, but the most previous research looked at the memories of American college students. Therefore, it wasn’t clear whether the FAB was a universal phenomenon, or just a peculiarity of that group.
In the new study, the authors pooled together 10 samples from different groups of people around the world, ranging from Ghanaian students, to older German citizens (who were asked to recollect the fall of the Berlin Wall). In total, 562 people were included.
The participants were asked to recall a number of events in their lives, both positive and negative. For each incident, they rated the emotions that they felt at the time it happened, and then the emotions that they felt in the present when remembering that event.
Ritchie and colleagues found that every cultural group included in the study experienced the FAB. In all of these samples, negative emotions associated with remembered events faded to a greater degree than positive emotions did. Importantly, there was no evidence that this effect changed with people’s age: it seems to be a lifelong phenomenon.
The authors conclude that our ability to look back on events with rose-tinted spectacles might be important for our mental health, as it could help us to adapt and move on from adversity: ‘We believe that this phenomenon is part of a set of cognitive processes that foster emotion regulation and enable psychological resilience.’
However, the authors admit that their study had some limitations. While the participants were diverse geographically and culturally, they all had to speak fluent English, because all of the testing was carried out in that language. In order to confirm that the FAB is truly universal, it will be important to examine it in other languages. Ritchie and colleagues also note that despite this apparent universality of the phenomenon, ‘We do not intend to imply that the FAB occurs for the same reasons around the world.’
Ritchie TD, Batteson TJ, Bohn A, Crawford MT, Ferguson GV, Schrauf RW, Vogl RJ, & Walker WR (2014). A pancultural perspective on the fading affect bias in autobiographical memory. Memory (Hove, England) PMID: 24524255
Post written for the BPS Research Digest by guest host Neuroskeptic, a British neuroscientist who blogs for Discover Magazine.