The Catholic University of America

Oct. 21, 2011

Research Explores Memory of Emotional Events


Doctoral graduate Carolyn Breslin and Martin Safer, professor of applied-experimental psychology. 

With the 2011 World Series under way, many baseball fans might recall previous big games their teams won or lost. Although they might think they remember a losing game more than a winning game, a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science by Catholic University researchers puts a more complicated spin on the story. 

The study by October 2011 doctoral graduate Carolyn Breslin and her adviser, Martin Safer, professor of applied-experimental psychology, focused on the memories of 1,563 Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and neutral fans about the 2003 and 2004 playoff series between New York and Boston.

Their research built on three previous studies that examined the objective accuracy and subjective vividness of memories of the televised acquittal in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 2004 Red Sox/Yankees playoffs.

Each study reached the conclusion that “people who felt positively about the events made more memory errors or recalled less than those who felt negatively.” Those who felt positively about events, however, scored higher on subjective measures of memory such as vividness and intensity. Those studies examined memories for only one event, whereas Breslin and Safer investigated memories for two comparable events where each team won once and lost once.

While the CUA study affirmed previous conclusions about the correlation between positive events and vivid recall, Breslin and Safer found the opposite was true of accurate memories: Yankees fans recalled more accurate details about the final playoff game of 2003, which their team won; Boston fans reported more accurately about the seventh game of the 2004 series, in which Boston pulled a come-from-behind turnaround that clinched them the American League title.

Why the difference in results on accuracy?

One of Breslin and Safer’s goals in the investigation was to determine whether “rehearsal” made a difference in fans’ memories of events.

“Rehearsal,” says Safer, “is more generally thinking about the event, having it being brought to mind. It could be watching a video about it, but much more likely something just reminds you of it — you see a baseball game or a particular player, or even a championship poster, team picture, team hat, and it reminds you of the time your team won or lost the ‘big’ game.”

With that in mind, the first question in the authors’ study was about how frequently fans had thought about or seen media concerning the games in question. For the 2003 game, Yankees fans reported more rehearsal than Red Sox fans; for the 2004 games, Red Sox fans reported more.

“Within each fan type,” says Safer, “rehearsal and accuracy were significantly correlated. Even after four or five years, Boston fans remembered more details about 2004 and Yankees fans more about 2003 because they thought more about and saw more media about the positive event.”

The two researchers say their study shows that long-term memory for an event is determined not only by whether the event was positive or negative to someone but also by experiences about the event after it has ended. 



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