Would you remember more about a wedding or a funeral? How about how you felt when you got an F on a test compared to getting an A? The effects of different emotions on memory is what Kensinger and Schacter’s study is about as they compare real-life memories of baseball fans from the 2004 world series final game – Boston Red Sox v the New York Yankees.
The effects of negative events on memory has been well-studied (e.g. Luethi – read more here). So has the effects of stress hormones like cortisol on memory (see Buchanan and Lovallo for an example here). But what is not as well studied is the effects of positive events on memory. Moreover, most memory research happens in a laboratory and so it might be questionable how much these findings can be generalized to real-life environments.
In this study, the researchers took advantage of a long-standing rivalry in American baseball – the Boston Red Sox vs the New York Yankees. These two teams were playing in the championship series for the American League in 2004 and so the researchers could compare the effects on memory of the positive event (for the winning Red Sox fans) and the negative event (for the losing Yankees fans) while having many variables controlled (e.g. the event itself, media coverage, etc.). The study was based on Game 7, the final and deciding game of the series which is always very high in emotions for everyone watching.
The original report does a very good job of summarizing the aim of this study: “by assessing memory for the final game of the 2004 American League championship series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in individuals who found the event to be highly positive (Red Sox fans), highly negative (Yankees fans), or nonemotional (fans of neither team), we examined whether the perceived valence (emotion) of a public event affected the amount of information recalled (and) whether it influenced … consistency of recall or confidence in a response’s accuracy.”
76 young adults aged between 18-35 were the participants. They were recruited by fliers that were posed around Boston. All participants must have watched the game for themselves to participate and there were three groups:
- Red Sox fans
- Yankees fans
- Baseball fans (but not of either of those teams)
Data was gathered using surveys that asked participants to recall Game 7 of the series between the Sox and Yankees. These surveys were completed within six days of the game finishing (Time 1) and then again about 6 months later (Time 2). The researchers also asked how emotional the game was for the fan (either positive, negative or neutral) as the effect of this on memory reliability would later be measured.
The results showed that there was no difference between the groups in terms of the amount of details recalled, but that both groups had significantly more memories than the no-emotion group (neutral fans).
The results also showed that negative emotions increased the memory of event-related details (e.g. details of the game itself) which is consistent with other studies that shows that the details related to the emotion are what tends to be remembered better.
The negative-event group (i.e. Yankees fans) also had the most consistent memories, although this was still quite low (about 60% of details recalled at Time 1 were also recalled at Time 2). These results also suggest that “…distortion can be lower for memories of negative events than for memories of positive or nonemotional events,” which “…is similar to other laboratory research that has demonstrated that memories for negative information can be less prone to distortion than memories for nonemotional information.”
The results can be used to explain some key concepts.
Emotion and Memory: The results both positive and negative emotions can increase memory of an event and that different types of emotions may have different effects.
Reconstructive Memory and Memory Reliability: The low consistency of memory across all groups shows that many studies show that our memories are reconstructed and during this reconstruction process they may succumb to distortion.
The researchers also conclude that “…these results indicate that positive events can be remembered with the same types of distortions that have been shown previously for negative events…” and that “…in comparison with negative valence (emotion), positive valence (emotion) sometimes can be associated with decreased memory consistency and increased memory overconfidence.
Critical Thinking Considerations
- This study is based on a real-life event, but could we generalize it to other highly emotional real-life events? Why/why not?
- The same was gathered using a self-selected sample. How might this bias the results?
- Are there any ethical considerations with this study?
Elizabeth A. Kensinger and Daniel L. Schacter. When the Red Sox shocked the Yankees: Comparing negative and positive memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review October 2006, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 757–763. (Read full article here)
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.