Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Sad Memories

Have you ever wondered why  break-ups feel so bad even after considerable time has passed? Even if, we are the ones who break up, there is still a hollow feeling that eventually creeps in and sometimes refuses to leave. And this feeling, of regret and sadness, extends to most life situations. Whenever we leave something, good or bad, we tend to feel bad about it. But many times right there in the moment, doesn’t seem as bad as when we remember the moment. This gap between how we feel in the moment and how we feel after, in retrospect, is what scientists call the memory experience gap.  

The Thought Process

Past research has shown that people tend to remember negative experiences more profoundly than positive experiences.

But the psychologists of this study, Dr. Talya Miron-Shatz (Princeton University), Dr Arthur Stone (Stony Brook University) and Dr Daniel Kahneman (Princeton University) wanted to gauge whether there is any difference between how people evaluate and experience positive and negative emotions.

What They Did

Two studies were conducted.

Study 1 810 women were recruited and asked to recall and rate their experiences and emotions throughout the day as well as how they felt after those experiences.

Study 2 – 615 women were recruited and were asked to first rate how they felt the previous day and then recount the specific experiences.

The second study was done in order to eliminate the possibility of order effects. Science has shown that how we order something can matter. So, to avoid getting a result based solely on order, the experimenters reversed the order of the questionnaires in Study 2.

What They Found

Scientists found that there is indeed a memory-experience gap for pleasant and unpleasant memories. People were more likely to remember unpleasant emotions and were inclined to pay more emphasis to those emotions in retrospect.

The authors concluded that it is possible that our brains process unpleasant information more thoroughly than pleasant information.

What That Means For Us.

How we remember things is not exactly how we felt it. 

More importantly, we have a tendency to exaggerate negative emotions. Just like, we tend disregard praise but hold onto criticism.

In order to excel in relationships, in our personal and professional life, we need to remember that our emotions depend on our narrative or perspective of those emotions.

If we believe that we were very sad during a certain time of our lives, every time we are reminded of that memory, we will be more likely to exaggerate that sadness than how sad we actually were.

In order to be more positive we must

  1. Understand the nature of our emotionality- if we are more likely to feel and hold onto unhappy feelings, then we must carefully construct, process and remember happy feelings.
  2. Pay attention to how we remember an event and try to pay less attention to how we think we felt.
  3. Be more rational about our memories knowing that they are likely to be wrong or exaggerated.
  4. Keep a journal of all the good things and happy emotions.
The Paper

Miron-Shatz, T., Stone, A., & Kahneman, D. (2009). Memories of yesterday’s emotions: Does the valence of    experience affect the memory-experience gap?Emotion, 9(6), 885-891. doi:10.1037/a0017823


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