LEVINE ANDPIZARROEMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH:
A GRUMPY OVERVIEW
Linda J. Levine and David A. Pizarro
University of California, Irvine
A great deal of research on emotion and memory has focused on the question
of whether emotion enhances memory. Based on this research, investigators
have variously claimed that emotional memories are indelible; that emotion
has no special effects on memory at all; and that emotion leads to enhanced
memory for either congruent or central information. In this overview, we re-
view the current status of these claims. Although considerable progress has
been made toward understanding whether and how emotion enhances mem-
ory, much of this research has been limited by its treatment of emotion as
merely “arousal.” Evidence is presented that people process, encode, and re-
trieve information differently depending upon whether they are feeling happy,
fearful, angry, or sad. We argue that a more complete understanding of the ef-
fects of emotion on memory will depend upon taking into account the differing
motivations and problemsolving strategies associated with discrete emotions.
How do emotions influence memory for autobiographical events? How
well do we remember a joyful family gathering, a terrifying near-miss on
the freeway, or an angry falling out with a friend? Just as importantly,
what aspects of these emotional events do we remember? Much of the
scientific research on these questions has focused on evaluating four
broad claims: the claim that emotional memories are indelible; the op-
posing claim that emotion has no special effects on memory at all; the
claim that emotion enhances memory for information similar in tone;
and the claim that emotion enhances memory for central information at
Social Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 5, 2004, pp. 530-554
An earlier version of this article was presented as an invited plenary address at the Cog-
nitive Aging Conference, Atlanta, GA, April, 2002.
We are grateful to Martin Conway and Ineke Wessel for their helpful comments on an
earlier version of this article.
Address correspondence to Linda J. Levine, Department of Psychology and Social Be-
havior, University of California, Irvine, 3340 Social Ecology Building II, Irvine, CA
92697-7085; E-mail: email@example.com.
the expense of peripheral details. Over the last couple of decades, re-
search on emotion and memory has increased dramatically and consid-
erable progress has been made toward evaluating the validity of these
claims. This article provides an overview of some recent strides toward
understanding whether and how emotion affects memory.
Why is this a grumpy overview? Fifteen years ago, Rob Neiss (1988)
made a powerful argument against the use of the excessively broad con-
struct of “emotional arousal” (also see Feldman & Waller, 1962; Lacey,
1967). Although researchers have long known that discrete emotions are
associated with different motivations and problem solving strategies,
few studies have assessed the implications of these differences for mem-
ory. We will argue that neglecting these differences leaves us with, at
best, an incomplete picture of the relationship between emotion and
memory, and at worst, an inaccurate one. Our aim is not to offer a com-
prehensive review of the literature on each claim discussed, as this has
been done recently and well (Eich & Forgas, 2003; McGaugh & Cahill,
2003; Ochsner & Schacter, 2003; Reisberg & Heuer, 2004; Schooler &
Eich, 2000). Rather, our goal is to illustrate how a focus on emotional
arousal constrains our understanding of the effects of emotions on mem-
ory, and to offer a possible solution and research direction—for memory
researchers to take discrete emotions seriously. To this end, the first sec-
tion of this article is devoted to a discussion of the status of the four
broad claims concerning whether and how emotion improves memory.
We review what is currently known and point out limitations in our
knowledge that stem from conceptualizing emotion as arousal. We then
draw on appraisal theories of emotion to show the importance of shift-
ing the level of analysis toward discrete emotions. We conclude by
reviewing evidence in support of the claim that discrete emotions differ
in their effects on memory.
ARE EMOTIONAL MEMORIES INDELIBLE?
It has long been acknowledged that memory for nonemotional informa-
tion is partially reconstructed based on post-event information and ap-
praisals (Bartlett, 1932; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Loftus, 1992;
Ross, 1989). Highly emotional events, however, were once thought to
leave indelible impressions on memory. William James wrote, “An ex-
perience may be so exciting as to almost leave a scar on the cerebral tis-
sue” (1890, p. 670). In their now classic article on flashbulb memories,
Brown and Kulik (1977) argued that, because of the obvious survival
value, there may be some mechanism in the brain that leads to remem-
bering biologically crucial but unexpected events with close to photo-
graphic accuracy. They demonstrated that, when people were asked to
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 531
describe how they first learned about highly emotional events, they
could typically provide a detailed report of where they were, what was
happening at the time, who told them the news, and how they felt. In
contrast to memories for mundane events, emotional memories often
contained vivid, highly idiosyncratic details that seemed to endure for a
long time. LeDoux (1992) also argued that emotional memories are in-
delible. He was referring not to memory for the details of what hap-
pened, but to memory for the emotions evoked by events. This claim was
based in part on the finding that, after they have been extinguished, clas-
sically conditioned avoidance responses can be reinstated by exposure
to a stressful stimulus. Thus although extinction suppresses an animal’s
behavioral response, it does not seem to erase the emotional memory
(also see Fanselow & Gale, 2003; van der Kolk, 1994).
Claims about the indelibility of emotional memory stimulated a great
deal of research on how accurate such memories really are. Contrary to
the indelibility hypothesis, researchers have demonstrated that the viv-
idness and detail that often characterize memories for emotional events
do not necessarily imply accuracy. In one study, Neisser and Harsch
(1992) found that inaccuracies were common when college students re-
counted how they found out about the explosion of the “Challenger”
space shuttle after a delay of 2½ years (also see Thompson & Cowan,
1986). More recently, Talarico and Rubin (2003) compared people’s
memories of first hearing about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
with their memories of recent everyday events. They found that greater
emotional intensity was associated with greater memory confidence but
not with consistency. The consistency of memories for the terrorist at-
tacks, and for everyday events, declined over time at a similar rate. In
contrast, other studies have shown that greater emotional intensity is as-
sociated with greater (though not perfect) memory consistency over
time (e.g., Conway 1995; Pillemer, 1984; Pillemer, Rhinehart, & White,
1986). For example, Conway et al. (1994) assessed people’s memories for
learning of the resignation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Citizens of the United Kingdom, who were more emotional about
Thatcher’s resignation than noncitizens, showed greater consistency
over time in their memories, even after statistically controlling for group
differences in knowledge, importance, and rehearsal.
Thus, although some studies have shown that greater emotional in-
tensity at the time of encoding is associated with greater consistency of
memories over time, all studies have shown that memories for emo-
tional events are far from error-free. Departing somewhat from Brown
and Kulik’s initial formulation of the flashbulb memory construct, the
biologically significant features of emotional events may not be details
concerning the reception context (i.e., “When did you first hear the
532 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
news?” “Who first told you the information?”). Rather, what matters
most may be that the event occurred, the gist of what occurred, and the
implications it had for the individual. We would expect these features to
be remembered better for emotional than for nonemotional events, a
point to which we will return later.
What about the indelibility of memory for emotions themselves? Are
people always accurate when they recall how they felt in the past? Re-
cent findings suggest not. Levine (1997) studied memory for emotions in
supporters of former U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot following
Perot’s abrupt withdrawal from the presidential race. For his support-
ers, Perot’s withdrawal from the race had all the elements typically asso-
ciated with the creation of vivid and lasting memories. The event was
surprising, associated with intense emotion, and viewed by these indi-
viduals as being of tremendous personal and social importance. Levine
had supporters describe their initial emotional reactions after Perot’s
withdrawal in July 1992 and again after the presidential election that
November. Between the two assessment periods, the views of many
supporters changed dramatically as Perot re-entered the race in October
and received nearly a fifth of the popular vote. The results showed that
supporters recalled their past emotions as having been more consistent
with their current appraisals of Perot than they actually were. For exam-
ple, those who favored Perot after his re-entry into the race underesti-
mated how sad and angry they had felt when Perot first withdrew, but
overestimated their initial feelings of hope that Perot could still make a
difference. In contrast, those who had turned against Perot
demonstrated stable recall of their previous feelings of anger, but
underestimated how hopeful they had felt.
Similarly, Breckler (1994) found that people’s current attitudes toward
blood donation influenced their memories for how they felt when donat-
ing blood. Holmberg and Holmes (1994, study 2) found that husbands
whose marriages had become less happy over time recalled early mari-
tal interactions as more negative than initially reported. People’s memo-
ries for how distressed they felt when they learned of the September 11,
2001 terrorist attacks also changed over time; the changes were pre-
dicted by their current appraisals of the impact of the attacks (Levine et
al., 2004). Taken together, these findings support the conclusion that
people’s memories for their past emotional responses can be partially re-
constructed based on their current appraisals of events.
Because these data are correlational, however, one cannot be certain
that changes in appraisals actually cause changes in memory for emo-
tions. It may be, for instance, that distortions in memory affect current
appraisals. So Safer, Levine, and Drapalski (2002) conducted an experi-
ment that assessed college students’ memories for how anxious they felt
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 533
before a midterm exam. Students were randomly assigned to one of two
groups. One group learned their exam grades before recalling their
pre-exam emotions. The other group did not yet know their grades
when they recalled their emotions. In contrast to those who had not yet
learned their grades, students who learned that they had done well on
the exam underestimated how anxious they had felt before the exam.
Students who learned that they had done poorly overestimated how
anxious they had felt. Thus, post-event information about their grades
led to distortions in students’ memories for their past feelings of anxiety.
Bias in memory for emotion is not limited to declarative memory.
Hendersen (1985) found that, in the absence of intervening events, rats
retain conditioned fear responses extremely well. But real life does not
occur in the absence of intervening events. In real life, after a frightening
event occurs, other experiences follow that may be better or worse than
the initial frightening one. What happens to conditioned fear in cases
like that? Hendersen created a laboratory situation analogous to such
real-life experiences. He conditioned rats to expect shock when they
heard a tone. The intensity of the conditioned fear response was as-
sessed by measuring how much the water-deprived rats’ drinking was
disrupted when they heard the tone. This memory test took place either
one day or 60 days after conditioning. On that day, the rats first received
gratuitous shocks (i.e., shocks unaccompanied by the tone) that were ei-
ther milder or more intense than those used during conditioning. When
re-exposed to the tone (the memory test), those rats that had received
mild gratuitous shocks showed less disruption of drinking than those
that had received more intense shock. Importantly, this difference in-
creased over time. Hendersen concluded that, over time, memories for
the intensity of fear had become increasingly malleable—increasingly
subject to bias in the direction of more recent experience.
In short, current research demonstrates that neither memory for emo-
tional events nor memory for emotional feelings is indelible. Like mem-
ories for more mundane events, emotional memories change over time
and can be influenced by post-event experience and appraisals. The mal-
leability of emotional memories should not be entirely unexpected. Af-
ter all, the primary function of memory may be to guide future behavior
rather than to keep an exact record of the past. For example, recalling
past emotions of delight or annoyance lets people know whether to seek
out similar situations in the future or avoid them (Damasio, 1994;
Hendersen, 1985; Levine, 1997; Levine, Prohaska, Burgess, Rice, &
Laulhere, 2001; Robinson, 1980). Because emotional memories are in-
formed by current appraisals of the emotion-eliciting situation, rather
than being perfectly faithful to the past, they may serve as a superior
guide for future behavior (Levine & Safer, 2002).
534 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
EMOTION MAKES MEMORY BETTER
The inaccuracies found in memory for emotional information led some
investigators to conclude that there are no emotion-specific effects on
memory at all. They claimed that any memory advantage observed for
emotional events could be accounted for by ordinary memory mecha-
nisms. That is, to the extent that emotional events are remembered
better, it is because they tend to be novel, distinctive, or interesting, and
well-rehearsed (e.g., Brewer, 1992; Finkenauer et al., 1998; McCloskey,
Wible, & Cohen, 1988; Talarico & Rubin, 2003; for reviews, see Schooler
& Eich, 2000; Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997). For example, Michael
McCloskey (1992) wrote:
[P]roponents of the special-mechanism hypothesis face an uphill battle
as they attempt to place the hypothesis on a more solid foundation.
Given that flashbulb memories may not be all that good, and the perfor-
mance expected from ordinary memory mechanisms may not be all that
bad, motivation for postulating a special flashbulb memory mechanism
may not be easy to come by. (p. 234)
Despite findings that emotional memories are not indelible, it seems
to us that this “uphill battle” has been won. Converging evidence
from autobiographical memory studies, animal and human labora-
tory studies, and brain imaging studies shows that emotional events
are remembered better than nonemotional events and that mecha-
nisms specific to emotion underlie these effects. In studies of autobio-
graphical memory, when people are asked to recall events that they
had previously recorded in diaries, greater emotional intensity is as-
sociated with greater memory vividness, even after controlling for
event novelty, importance, and the amount of rehearsal (Conway,
1995; Thompson, Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996).
Laboratory studies with animals and humans show that stress hor-
mones, such as epinephrine, are released when events evoke strong
emotions. These peripheral stress hormones in turn activate
noradrenergic systems in the amygdala, and amygdala activation
mediates consolidation of long-term memory in other brain regions
(Cahill, Prins, Weber, & McGaugh, 1994; for a review see McGaugh &
Cahill, 2003). The critical role of the amygdala in strengthening emo-
tional memories is well-documented. Infusing stress hormones di-
rectly into the amygdala enhances memory for emotional
information. Inactivating this region, using lesions or drugs, attenu-
ates the enhancing effects of stress hormones on memory (McGaugh,
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 535
Brain imaging studies also support the view that the amygdala plays
an important role in the consolidation or strengthening of memory for
emotional events (Ochsner & Schacter, 2003). Importantly, the enhance-
ment of memory associated with amygdala activation is specific to emo-
tional information. Consider for example, the following two studies.
Canli, Zhao, Brewer, Gabrieli, and Cahill (2000) conducted an fMRI
study in which participants saw negative and neutral pictures. A sepa-
rate fMRI response was recorded in the amygdala as participants rated
each picture for emotional intensity. Three weeks later, participants
were given a surprise recognition test with previously seen and new pic-
tures. They were asked to indicate whether they had seen each picture
before, and if so, whether they remembered seeing it or it just seemed fa-
miliar. The results showed that the more emotionally intense partici-
pants found the pictures, the more bilateral activation was found in the
amygdala. Three weeks later, pictures that had been rated as the most
emotionally intense were remembered better, on average, than pictures
rated as less intense. Moreover, for those pictures rated as the most emo-
tionally intense, the greater the left amygdala activation, the more likely
it was that the picture would be clearly remembered (also see Cahill et
Can these findings be explained in terms of “ordinary memory mecha-
nisms” such as the distinctiveness or interestingness of the stimuli?
Hamann, Ely, Grafton, and Kilts (1999) conducted a PET scan study in
which participants viewed, and rated, four types of pictures: positive,
negative, affectively neutral (e.g., a book, a towel), and affectively neu-
tral but interesting (e.g., a scene from a surrealistic film, an exotic pa-
rade). During each PET scan, participants rated the pictures for
emotional arousal, valence, and degree of interest. A month later, partic-
ipants were given a surprise recognition test. The results showed that
both emotional and interesting pictures were remembered better than
neutral pictures. Greater bilateral amygdala activity during encoding
was correlated with better memory for emotional pictures relative to
neutral pictures. No significant correlation was found between
amygdala activity and better memory for interesting pictures, however.
These findings suggest that the neural mechanisms by which emotion
leads to better memory differ from the neural mechanisms by which
distinctiveness leads to better memory (also see Strange, Hurlemann, &
Thus, emotional memories are not indelible. They fade over time and
are subject to biases resulting from post-event information and apprais-
als. Yet, relative to affectively neutral memories, emotional memories
tend to be long-lasting, vivid, and detailed (LeDoux, 2000). As meta-
phors go, then, indelible ink may be too strong, but a highlighter seems
536 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
about right. Emotion appears to increase the salience of information
much like a highlighter increases the salience of text. In short, emotion
makes memory better.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “BETTER?”
That is all well and good as far as it goes, but here we get to the heart of
the matter—what do we mean by “better?” If emotion functions as a
highlighter of sorts, what sorts of information does it highlight? Once
one moves beyond the simple statement that emotion strengthens mem-
ory, things get complicated quickly. Whether or not emotion leads to en-
hanced memory for information has been shown to depend on whether
the information is: generated by the self or by the experimenter; self-ref-
erential or not; recalled or recognized; assessed immediately or after a
delay (for reviews see Blaney, 1986; Eich & Forgas, 2003).
Each of these factors is important, but rather than venture into that for-
est of research, this review will stick to the well-beaten path. Two an-
swers to the question, “What do we mean by better” are by far the most
common in the literature. One answer is that emotions enhance the
availability of emotion-congruent information. That is, people tend to
encode and retrieve information that matches the tone of their current
emotional state. In an early demonstration of this effect, Bower, Gilligan,
and Monteiro (1981) induced a happy or sad mood in participants. Par-
ticipants then heard a story about two college students, one doing well
and the other doing poorly. A memory test was given the next day when
participants were in a neutral mood. Previously happy participants re-
called more happy facts from the story; previously sad participants re-
called more sad facts. Since then, numerous studies have demonstrated
emotion-congruent biases in perception, judgment, encoding, and
retrieval of information (Eich & Forgas, 2003).
Bower (1981) explained these findings in terms of associative network
theory. He proposed that emotions function as nodes in an associative
network of information. When an emotion is evoked, the node is acti-
vated, and activation spreads to other nodes in the network that are as-
sociated with it, such as past experiences, concepts, and emotional
behaviors. This related information becomes more accessible as a result,
and influences perception, judgment, and memory in an
Incorporating emotion into a model of semantic and episodic knowl-
edge was a crucial development that generated an enormous amount of
interest and stimulated research concerning the relations between emo-
tion and cognition. As several investigators have argued, however, it
may be inappropriate to treat such different beasts as emotions, episodic
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 537
information, semantic information, and behavioral tendencies as equiv-
alent nodes in a common network (e.g., Leventhal & Tomarken, 1986).
Further, there are findings that associative network models do not ex-
plain well. Irrespective of the particular emotion experienced, network
models predict enhanced memory for information that matches the
emotion in tone. Emotion-congruent memory has been found to be
stronger for positive than negative emotions, however, and under cer-
tain conditions, people reliably retrieve emotion-incongruent memo-
ries. Researchers have explained these findings by extending network
models to incorporate the different motivations and regulation strate-
gies associated with positive and negative emotions (Eich & Forgas,
2003; Parrot & Spackman, 2000). Thus, recent research suggests that
associative network theory provides an incomplete explanation of the
effects of emotions on memory.
The other common answer is that better means “central.” In a series of
laboratory studies, Christianson, Loftus, and their colleagues found that
emotional arousal enhanced recall of information central to the event
that elicited the emotion, but disrupted recall of peripheral details (e.g.,
Christianson & Loftus, 1991). In one such study, participants were pre-
sented with one of two matched slide sequences depicting either an
emotional event (a boy hit by a car) or a neutral event (a boy walking be-
side a car). All participants wrote down the central feature of each slide.
Participants who viewed the emotional slide sequence were better able
to recall the central features than participants who viewed the neutral se-
quence, but they were less able to recognize the particular slides they
had seen (Christianson & Loftus, 1987). As mentioned above, these find-
ings suggest that consistency over time in memory for highly emotional
events (i.e., flashbulb memories) would be more likely to be found for
the central features of the events than for details of the reception context
(Schaefer & Philippot, in press).
Overall, the finding of enhanced memory for central aspects of emo-
tional events has been well-supported (e.g., Adolphs, Denburg, &
Tranel, 2001; Berntsen, 2002; Brown, 2003; Burke, Heuer, & Reisberg,
1992; Safer, Christianson, Autry, & Osterlund, 1998), but emotional
arousal has been found to sometime enhance and sometimes disrupt
memory for detail, raising the issue of how one determines whether a
given detail should be classified as central or peripheral (Heuer &
Reisberg, 1992; Reisberg & Heuer, 2004).
This brings us to the part that we are grumpy about. Neither of the
common answers to the question of what “better” means takes into ac-
count some of the fundamental properties of emotions. The vast major-
ity of research on the effects of emotion on memory treats emotion as
“arousal”—a variable that can be measured on a single scale ranging
538 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
from relaxed to very emotionally aroused. A more complete under-
standing of how emotions affect memory will depend upon taking into
account that, while arousal is an essential component of emotion that
certainly affects memory, emotion is more than arousal. Arousal is to
emotion what brightness is to color; an essential component to be sure,
but one that fails to capture some of the most fundamental properties of
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH BASED ON COGNITIVE
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far away from most emotion and memory re-
search, a separate line of theory and research has focused on identifying
the functions that specific emotions fulfill within the cognitive system.
According to appraisal theories, people constantly evaluate the rele-
vance of environmental changes for their well-being. People experience
emotions when they perceive that a goal has been attained or obstructed
and it becomes necessary for them to revise prior beliefs and construct
new plans (Arnold, 1960; Lazarus, 1991; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987;
Simon, 1967). Once evoked, emotions direct attention to aspects of a situ-
ation that are functional—that is, relevant for responding to the type of
situation that evokes the emotion.
Specific emotions most likely evolved to enable organisms to respond
adaptively to different types of environmental changes. According to
appraisal theorists, then, one cannot distinguish emotions such as fear
and anger simply on the basis of levels of arousal and pleasantness
(Ellsworth & Scherer, 2003). Fear is elicited by the perception of a future
threat to well-being that must be avoided. Anger is elicited by the per-
ception of a present obstacle to well-being that must be removed. A great
deal of evidence now indicates that specific emotions are evoked by dif-
ferent interpretations of events and are associated with different motiva-
tions and problem-solving strategies (e.g., Ellsworth & Scherer, 2003;
Frijda, 1987; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Roseman, Antoniou, & Jose,
1996; Scherer, 1998; Smith & Lazarus, 1993; Stein & Levine, 1987; Stein,
Trabasso, & Liwag, 2000; Weiner, 1985). From this perspective, it makes
little sense to limit research to the effects of emotional arousal on mem-
ory. People may feel elated, terrified, despairing, or furious—but they
are never just “aroused.”
Given the long histories of both appraisal theories and research on
memory and emotion, it is surprising that so little research on memory
has taken into account the differing functions of discrete emotions. Tak-
ing this view seriously would require researchers to go beyond classify-
ing to-be-remembered information as emotion-congruent or
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 539
incongruent, central or peripheral. The information-processing strate-
gies that are adaptive in one emotional state may not be adaptive in an-
other. The types of information that are central in one emotional state
may not be central in another. Thus, a better meaning of “better” is “rele-
vant to the motivations associated with discrete emotions.”
What advantages are there to using discrete emotions, rather than
general arousal, as the level of analysis for assessing the effects of emo-
tion on memory? After all, studies examining overall recognition accu-
racy or speed have sometimes found no differences as a function of
positive versus negative valence, to say nothing of discrete emotions
(e.g., Bradley, Greenwald, Petry, & Lang, 1992; Hamann et al., 1999).
More fine-grained analyses reveal a different picture, however. Social
psychologists have generated considerable evidence that happiness and
negative emotions are associated with different information-processing
strategies. These information-processing strategies, as it turns out, affect
memory as well. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence indicat-
ing that discrete emotions affect the types of information people attend
to, encode, and retrieve. It is to this evidence that we now turn.
INFORMATION-PROCESSING STRATEGIES ASSOCIATED
What types of information-processing strategies would be adaptive in
different emotional states? Although research on discrete emotions is
limited, social psychologists have investigated the information-process-
ing strategies associated with positive versus negative emotions. Several
investigators have argued that people feel happy when goals have been
attained and no immediate problem demands to be solved. In these cir-
cumstances, general knowledge is typically adequate for maintaining a
state of well-being. Therefore, when happy, people would be expected
to draw freely on general knowledge and use less effortful heuristics to
process information. Consistent with this view, research shows that
when happy people evaluate arguments or make social judgments they
tend to rely more on general knowledge, stereotypes, or heuristics than
do people in a neutral or negative mood (e.g., Bodenhausen, Kramer, &
Susser, 1994; Fiedler, Asbeck, & Nickle, 1991; Forgas, 1998). Happiness
has also been shown to facilitate flexibility and creativity in
problemsolving tasks (e.g., Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987;
Fredrickson, 2001). In contrast, negative emotions are experienced when
goals are threatened or have failed. Research shows that when people
are experiencing negative emotions, they tend to engage in effortful pro-
cessing, evaluating information in a careful, systematic manner and re-
lying less on general knowledge and heuristics. Thus, emotional
540 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
valence, which reflects whether or not there is a problem to be solved,
influences people’s information processing strategies (for a review see
Bless & Schwarz, 1999).
The key question here though is, do these differing information pro-
cessing strategies influence memory? There is evidence that they do, and
that taking them into account can help to address some puzzling find-
ings in emotion and memory research. Specifically, a puzzle exists con-
cerning the effects of emotional valence on autobiographical memory.
People typically rate positive life events as better remembered than neg-
ative life events (e.g., Matlin & Stang, 1978; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003;
Thompson et al., 1996; Walker, Vogl, & Thompson, 1997). When re-
searchers look at the objective accuracy of people’s accounts, however,
they sometimes find no valence effect (e.g., Holmes, 1970), or even supe-
rior memory for negative events (e.g., Banaji & Hardin, 1994; Bluck & Li,
2001; Kreitler & Kreitler, 1968).
Research suggests that this inconsistency is related to the differing in-
formation-processing strategies associated with positive and negative
emotions. For example, Bless et al. (1996) induced a happy or sad mood
in participants, and then presented them with information about com-
mon activities such as eating at a restaurant. Some of the information
was script-typical (e.g., “the hostess placed the menus on the table”) and
some was script-atypical (e.g., “he put away his tennis racket”). About
15 minutes later, participants were given a surprise recognition test with
both old and new information. They found that happy participants were
more likely than sad participants to “recognize” script-typical informa-
tion, independent of whether or not the information had actually been
presented. Sad participants were more conservative, and more accurate,
in their recognition judgments. Similarly, Park and Banaji (2000) found
that happy participants showed a bias toward greater leniency in recog-
nizing ethnic names as members of stereotypical categories, leading to
many instances of false recognition. In contrast, participants in a nega-
tive mood used a more stringent criterion when making recognition
judgments. Thus laboratory studies, typically lasting an hour or so, have
shown that happiness can lead to greater reliance on general knowledge
or stereotypes and to intrusion errors in memory.
Levine and Bluck (2004) wanted to know whether people make recon-
structive errors of this sort when they remember real-world events that
made them happy. They assessed participants’ emotions and memories
concerning the televised announcement of the verdict in the murder trial
of O. J. Simpson. Memory was assessed for actual events and plausible
foils. They found that people who were happy about the verdict recog-
nized more events after a year than people who felt angry and sad, irre-
spective of whether or not the events had actually occurred. People
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 541
whose reaction to the verdict was negative tended to err in a conserva-
tive fashion by rejecting events. Signal detection analyses confirmed that
the threshold for judging events as having occurred was lower for peo-
ple who were happy about the verdict than for people whose reaction
Thus, one source of the inconsistent findings concerning emotional
valence and autobiographical memory may be that people recalling
happy events believe they remember events better than they actually do.
These errors may come from people’s tendency when happy to rely on
general knowledge about what might have happened to fill in gaps in
their representations. Events that made people happy are consistent
with their goals. Drawing flexibly on general knowledge when remem-
bering such events would allow people to build on past experiences of
goal achievement without the risk that slight memory errors will lead to
new difficulties in the present (Fredrickson, 2001). In contrast, events
that evoked negative emotions are discrepant from goals and indicate a
problem to be resolved. When remembering such events, people may
engage in more focused retrieval of information relevant to repairing
past negative outcomes or avoiding future ones. Consistent with this
view, Berntsen (2002) found that people report a wide variety of details
when recounting their happiest memories but focus on central
information when recounting their most shocking (negative) memories.
The broader point is that findings such as these are very difficult to ex-
plain in terms of general emotional arousal. People experiencing posi-
tive and negative emotions have different motivations. They process
information differently as a result, and these differences affect memory.
The distinction drawn between positive and negative valence in these
studies still neglects important differences between same-valence emo-
tions such as anger and fear (Bodenhausen et al., 1994; Tiedens & Linton,
2001), but simply adding the dimension of valence helps to address a
puzzle concerning autobiographical memory that cannot be explained
solely in terms of emotional arousal.
TYPES OF INFORMATION REMEMBERED IN DIFFERENT
We also suggested that the types of information that are central in one
emotional state may not be central in another. So what types of informa-
tion are relevant or central in specific emotional states? Predictions
based on appraisal theories are summarized in Table 1. If fear motivates
people to avoid the threat of goal failure, frightened people may selec-
tively encode and retrieve information associated with threats and
means of avoiding them. If anger motivates people to overcome obsta-
542 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
cles to their goals, angry people may selectively encode and retrieve in-
formation concerning goals and the agents causing goals to be
obstructed. This information would be useful for constructing plans to
change negative situations and reinstate goals. In contrast, sadness is ex-
perienced when people believe that goal failure is irrevocable. When a
goal fails and cannot be reinstated, the risks and causes of failure (central
information in states of fear and anger, respectively) become irrelevant
or peripheral. It becomes essential, however, to understand the out-
comes of failure and the consequences that the failure of one goal may
have for related goals. In short, experiencing an emotion may influence
the salience and accessibility of information relevant to the motivational
state associated with that emotion.
According to this view, emotions serve as a powerful organizing force,
not just for behavior, but for perception, judgment, and memory (also
see Dalgleish, 2004). In the service of responding to the types of circum-
stances that lead to their elicitation, discrete emotions cause people to
become attuned to, and indeed to search for, relevant information. Thus,
a frightened person would search the environment and memory for
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 543
TABLE 1. Information Processing Strategies Associated with Positive and Negative
Emotions and Types of Information Expected to be Central in Discrete Emotional
Emotional Valence Motivational State Information-Processing Strategy
Positive Goal attained: No immedi-
ate problem to be solved Flexible processing; increased reli-
ance on general knowledge and
Negative Actual or threatened goal
failure: Change beliefs,
plans, or behaviors
Analytic, data-driven processing
Discrete Emotions Motivational State Central Information
Happiness Maintain current state; at-
tain new goals Broad range of information from
general knowledge and the envi-
Fear Avoid or escape threat of
goal failure Sources of threat; means of avoid-
Anger Remove obstacle to goal at-
tainment Goal; agents obstructing goal at-
Sadness Adjust to irrevocable goal
failure Outcomes and consequences of
sources of threat and means of avoiding it; an angry person would
search the environment and memory for agents responsible for obstruct-
ing their goals and means of removing them. Evidence for this view is ac-
cumulating, but most of this evidence comes from research on the effects
of discrete emotions on attention and judgment. We summarize these
findings below. Although research on the effects of discrete emotions on
memory is sparse, we also review several findings from memory
research that support this view.
A growing body of research on attention and judgment supports the
view that motivations affect memory (McDonald & Hirt, 1997), and that
discrete emotions lead to enhanced attention to, and accessibility of,
motivationally relevant information (Williams, Mathews, & McLeod,
1996). In the case of fear, we argued that this information would consist
of threats and means of avoiding them. Consistent with this view, re-
search on attention and judgment shows that fearful people attend pref-
erentially to threat-related information (Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, &
Welch, 2001; Öhman, Flykt, & Esteves, 2001) and interpret ambiguous
situations as threatening (Eysenck, 1997). Additionally, fear and anger,
though both arousing, have been shown to have opposite effects on
judgments concerning risk. Fear leads to greater estimates of risk and to
choices that involve avoiding risk, whereas anger leads to lower esti-
mates of risk and to risk-seeking choices (Lerner & Keltner, 2000, 2001).
Studies comparing the effects of anger and sadness on judgment have
shown differential accessibility of information concerning the agents re-
sponsible for causing harm and irrevocable loss, respectively. For exam-
ple, in a study in which participants were asked to render judgments
about cases of alleged misconduct, angry participants relied more on
heuristic cues concerning the agents responsible for causing harm (i.e.,
ethnicity) than did sad participants (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, &
Kramer, 1994). In another study, inducing anger in participants led to
greater estimates of the likelihood of events in which others intention-
ally caused harm (e.g., being knowingly sold a “lemon” by a dishonest
car dealer), whereas inducing sadness led to greater estimates of the
likelihood of losses (e.g., a best friend moving away) (DeSteno, Petty,
Wegener, & Rucker, 2000).
Research on memory and discrete emotions reveals a similar pattern
of findings. Fearful individuals display enhanced memory for threat-re-
lated information and poorer memory for threat-irrelevant details. For
example, Wessel and Merckelbach (1998) investigated the effects of fear
on memory in a sample of spider phobics. Phobic and low-fear control
participants were shown a bulletin board to which central (pictures of
spiders) and peripheral (pictures of babies and pens) stimuli were at-
tached. Spider phobics displayed an increase in physiological markers
544 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
of fear when viewing the display. Later, when asked to recall the dis-
play, spider phobics showed enhanced memory for central information
and impaired memory for peripheral information (also see Wessel &
Merckelbach, 1997). The association between fear and enhanced mem-
ory for threatening stimuli has also been noted by investigators assess-
ing the accuracy and completeness of eyewitness testimony. “Weapon
focus” refers to witnesses’ tendency to focus on and remember the
weapon used to commit a crime, often at the expense of memory for
other information such as the culprit’s face (e.g., Kramer, Buckhout, &
Eugenio, 1990; Loftus, Loftus, & Messo, 1987; Steblay, 1992).
It should be noted that, in laboratory studies with humans, fearful
people sometimes turn their attention away from threatening stimuli
and later show poorer recall or recognition of it (for a review see
Minetka, Rafaeli, & Yovel, 2003). In contrast, in animal research, en-
hanced memory for threatening stimuli is assessed in terms of avoid-
ance behaviors (e.g., ceasing exploration; avoidance of a context in
which the animal had an aversive experience). In this literature, the ef-
fects of fear on memory are extremely well-documented (e.g., LeDoux,
2000; McGaugh & Cahill, 2003).
But are these memory effects due to fear or simply to arousal? Would
witnesses feeling enraged or saddened by a crime in progress, rather
than frightened, later remember the threatening weapon or would dif-
ferent types of information be central for those individuals (i.e., the
agent committing the crime, the irrevocable losses entailed)? One way to
answer this question is to examine the effects of intense but
motivationally distinct emotional states on memory. Consistent with
predictions from appraisal theory, when individuals in a depressed
mood are asked to recall autobiographical events, they tend to focus not
on sources of threat, but on negative outcomes such as personal losses
and defeats. For instance, Lyubomirsky, Caldwell, and
Nolen-Hoeksema (1998) found that, across four studies, moderately sad
or depressed individuals recalled more negative autobiographical
events (e.g., failing a test, losing a girlfriend, their parents divorce), than
did nondepressed individuals.
Levine and Burgess (1997) assessed the effects of happiness, anger,
and sadness on the encoding of different types of information in a narra-
tive. Emotions were evoked in undergraduates by randomly assigning
grades of “A” or “D” on a surprise quiz. Immediately afterward, stu-
dents participated in what they believed to be an unrelated study during
which they heard and recalled a narrative about a student’s first term in
college. At the end of the study they were asked to rate how happy, an-
gry, and sad they had felt when they received their quiz grades. In con-
trast to happy students, who demonstrated enhanced memory for the
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 545
narrative as a whole, students who reported feeling primarily sad or pri-
marily angry tended to recall specific types of information. As predicted,
sad students recalled significantly more information concerning event
outcomes than did angry participants (e.g., “They receive a bad grade on
the speech”). Angry students showed a nonsignificant tendency to recall
more information about the protagonist’s goals than did sad students
(e.g., “Mary wants her speech to be really good”). In addition, a signifi-
cant positive correlation was found between the intensity of anger
reported and the amount of goal-related information recalled.
Although caution is appropriate when generalizing from
psychopathology to everyday emotional experience, the effects of clini-
cal depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on memory
may be instructive. Depression and PTSD are both associated with intru-
sive memories. Consistent with the differing motivations associated
with sadness and fear, however, depression is characterized by rumina-
tion on past negative events and their consequences for the self, whereas
PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories related to past threats to
safety (Reynolds & Brewin, 1999; Watkins & Teasdale, 2001). The find-
ing that depressed people sometimes retrieve less specific (i.e.,
over-general) memories relative to nondepressed controls may seem to
conflict with the view that sadness is associated with enhanced encoding
and retrieval of information about irrevocable losses and their conse-
quences. Most studies have found, however, that depressed patients
have over-general memories for positive rather than negative events
(Minetka et al., 2003). Over-general memory for negative events, when
found, may be associated with attempts to avoid intrusive memories of
losses (Healy & Williams, 1999). For example, Brewin, Watson, McCar-
thy, Hyman, & Dayson (1998) found that greater over-general memory
in depressed cancer patients was associated with reporting more at-
tempts to avoid intrusive memories, typically memories of the deaths of
people close to the patient. Recent research demonstrating distinct neu-
ral correlates of emotions such as sadness and anxiety is also consistent
with the view that understanding the effects of these emotions on
memory will require going beyond a focus on general arousal or valence
(Liotti et al., 2000; Panksepp, 2000; also see Levenson, 1992).
Further research is needed to identify the mechanisms underlying the
effects of discrete emotions on memory. The findings reported above,
however, support the view that discrete emotions evoke “appraisal ten-
dencies” (Lerner & Keltner, 2000) as well as “action tendencies” (Frijda,
1987). The types of situations that evoke emotions such as fear, anger,
and sadness vary dramatically with respect to the responses required of
the individual. Once evoked, these emotions appear to trigger selective
processing, encoding, and retrieval of information that is important for
546 LEVINE AND PIZARRO
responding to these differing emotion-eliciting situations. The selective
encoding and retrieval of motivationally relevant information would
typically be adaptive, but depression and anxiety disorders remind us
that this is not always the case. As Descartes put it, “the utility of the pas-
sions consists alone in their fortifying and perpetuating in the soul
thoughts which it is good it should preserve... and again, all the harm
which they can cause consists in the fact that they fortify and conserve
these thoughts more than necessary” (Article LXXIV, 1649/1989).
So, in what ways might emotions make memory better? With the
reader’s indulgence, we will sum up by stretching the highlighter meta-
phor a little further. If happiness serves as a highlighter, it appears to be a
broad and inclusive one that increases the salience of a wide swath of in-
formation, some from general knowledge, some from the environment.
The composite representations that result tend to be vivid and creative
but not very discriminating. Negative emotions, on the other hand, may
work like fine-tip highlighters that increase the salience of a narrow
range of information in the service of either preventing, fixing, or adjust-
ing to goal failure. Given the differing motivations associated with spe-
cific negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness, the types of
information likely to be encoded and retrieved in these states should
There have been exciting developments in emotion and memory re-
search in the past couple of decades, just a few of which have been ad-
dressed in this overview. Nonetheless, the field has progressed to the
point that we can address the validity of certain broad claims with confi-
dence. We now know that emotional memories are not indelible. In fact,
they are subject to some of the same reconstructive forces as memories
for nonemotional events. We also know that emotional events are re-
membered better than nonemotional events, and that the amygdala
plays an important role in this process. Considerable progress has been
made toward identifying the mechanisms underlying these findings.
Another area of emotion and memory research, however, is still in its
infancy. We have argued that a key next step will be to specify, with
more precision, the ways in which emotional information is remem-
bered better. Recent findings from research on appraisal theories of
emotion, social-psychological laboratory studies, and even some re-
search on memory, suggest that this step will require taking fundamen-
tal properties of emotion into account: Namely, that emotions are
responses to changes in the status of goals; that they motivate thoughts
and actions directed toward maintaining, preventing, or coping with
EMOTION AND MEMORY RESEARCH 547
those changes; and that specific emotions are associated with different
motivations. If the sparseness of the evidence currently available on the
effects of discrete emotions on memory has made the reader grumpy
too, we apologize. But perhaps grumpiness will enhance memory for a
promising research direction: Examining how information is remem-
bered (i.e., information processing strategies), and what information is
remembered, in specific emotional states.
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