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The authors investigated age-related differences in phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories for positive, negative, and neutral events. Younger and older participants were asked to recall two specific memories of each type and then to rate their memories on several sensorial (e.g., visual, taste) and contextual (e.g., location, time) characteristics. The authors found that emotional (both positive and negative) memories contained more sensorial and contextual details than neutral memories in both age groups, whereas positive and negative memories did not differ on most dimensions. In addition, negative memories were associated with a higher intensity of positive feelings and a reduced complexity of storyline in older as compared to younger adults. These results suggest that the effect of emotion on phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories is similar in younger and older adults, but that older adults tend to reappraise negative events in a more positive light than younger adults.
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Autobiographical memory and aging
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Running head : AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORY AND AGING
2005 – Experimental Aging Research, 31, 173-189
Phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories for emotional and
neutral events in older and younger adults.
Christine Comblain
1
, Arnaud D’Argembeau
1
,
Martial Van der Linden
1,2
1
University of Liège, Belgium
2
University of Geneva, Switzerland
Correspondence should be addressed to: Arnaud D’Argembeau, Cognitive
Psychopathology Unit, Université de Liège, Boulevard du Rectorat B33, 4000
Liège, Belgium. E-mail: a.dargembeau@ulg.ac.be Tel: +3243664657
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Acknowledgements: This work was supported by the Government of the French Community
of Belgium (Direction de la Recherche Scientifique – Actions de Recherche Concertées,
Convention 99/04-246). The authors wish to express their thanks to Caroline Paheau for her
help in data collection.
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Abstract
We investigated age-related differences in phenomenal characteristics of
autobiographical memories for positive, negative, and neutral events. Younger and
older participants were asked to recall two specific memories of each type and then to
rate their memories on several sensorial (e.g., visual, taste) and contextual (e.g.,
location, time) characteristics. We found that emotional (both positive and negative)
memories contained more sensorial and contextual details than neutral memories in
both age groups, whereas positive and negative memories did not differ on most
dimensions. In addition, negative memories were associated with a higher intensity of
positive feelings and a reduced complexity of storyline in older as compared to
younger adults. These results suggest that the effect of emotion on phenomenal
characteristics of autobiographical memories is similar in younger and older adults,
but that older adults tend to reappraise negative events in a more positive light than
younger adults.
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Phenomenal characteristics of autobiographical memories for emotional and neutral
events in older and younger adults.
Certain types of events can be remembered with considerable detail whereas
memories for other events are rather vague. These former events can be mentally “re-
experienced” and the memories associated contain a substantial amount of contextual,
sensorial, and affective details such as memories of the people who were present, the
actions they did, the color of their clothes, the location of different objects, the feelings
we had at the time, etc. These qualitative (or phenomenal) aspects of memory (e.g., the
amount of sensorial details, the clarity of location and time memory) and the subjective
experience that accompanies recollection are essential aspects of autobiographical
memory and their importance have been increasingly emphasized in recent
developments of memory research (Brewer, 1996; Gardiner & Richardson-Klavhen,
2000; Wheeler, Stuss, & Tulving, 1997). It is indeed these phenomenal details that give
the rememberer the feeling that a particular mental representation is a memory for an
event that belongs to her/his personal past instead of a mental representation of an event
only imagined or other kind of representation such as semantic knowledge or beliefs
(Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993).
Several findings indicate that the emotional meaning of the remembered events
can influence the phenomenal characteristics of memories. For instance, we found in a
recent study that autobiographical memories for positive events contained more
sensorial (i.e., visual, odours, taste) and contextual (i.e., location, time) details than
memories for negative and neutral events, whereas negative and neutral memories
contained a similar level of details (D’Argembeau, Comblain, & Van der Linden, 2003).
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Destun and Kuiper (1999) also found that memories for pleasant events were more
detailed than memories for stressful events. Similarly, Larsen (1998) showed that the
visual, auditory, olfactory-gustatory, tactile, and somato-kinaesthetic details were more
vivid for positive than for negative memories and Raspotnig (1997) found that the
imagery associated with positive memories was reported as being more colorful, sharper
in focus, and more vivid than the imagery associated with negative memories. These
differences in memory for positive as compared to negative events are consistent with
the so-called Pollyanna principle, which states that people process pleasant information
more accurately and efficiently than unpleasant information (Matlin & Stang, 1978).
However, a recent study suggests that characteristics of autobiographical memories such
as vividness and specificity are more consistently predicted by emotional intensity of
the events rather than their valence (Talarico, LaBar, & Rubin, in press). Whatever it
may be, the studies mentioned above indicate that the emotional meaning of an event
(whether it is due to its emotional intensity or its valence) can influence the way this
event will subsequently be experienced in memory.
Relatively little is known about age-related differences in phenomenal
characteristics of autobiographical memories and, to the best of our knowledge, none of
the studies that focused on qualitative components of memories in aging examined
memories for emotional experiences. Hashtroudi, Johnson, and Chrosniak (1990)
examined memory for perceived and imagined events in older and younger adults with a
procedure in which everyday situations were simulated in the laboratory. Participants
perceived some everyday situations in which they actually participated (e.g., to pack a
picnic basket) or were asked to imagine these situations (e.g., imagine that you are
preparing to go on a picnic). They were then unexpectedly asked to rate some
characteristics of their memory for half of these situations with the Memory
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Characteristics Questionnaire (MCQ; Johnson, Foley, Suengas, & Raye, 1988). The
next day, participants were once again asked to rate their memories on the MCQ (this
time for all the situations), and then they had to recall all they could remember about
each situation. No age-differences were observed for the initial and the second ratings of
both perceived and imagined events concerning the sensorial and contextual details.
However, older subjects reported more thoughts and feelings than did the younger
subjects during the second ratings. In contrast, on the recall test, contextual (such as
color, objects and spatial references) and non-visual sensory information were less well
remembered by older than younger participants. Therefore, older adults had some
difficulty in remembering specific perceptual and contextual (i.e., spatial) information
despite giving similar ratings for these aspects of their memories. This pattern of data is
mirrored by older adults’ impairment at retrieving contextual details associated with
stimuli such as words or pictures (Chalfonte & Johnson, 1996; Spencer & Ratz, 1995)
and at experiencing conscious remembering of these stimuli (Clarys, Insingrini, &
Gana, 2002; Parkin & Walter, 1992; Perfect & Dasgupta, 1997). However, most of
these studies dealt with neutral stimuli, leaving unresolved the issue of whether
phenomenal characteristics of emotional memories are also affected by aging.
Contrary to most aspects of cognitive functioning, emotional processes appear
rather unscathed by aging (see Isaacowitz, Charles, & Carstensen, 2000, for review).
Emotional well-being remains stable or even is enhanced with age. Indeed, several
studies have found that positive affect remains mostly constant across the lifespan
whereas the frequency and duration of negative emotions decrease with age
(Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, & Nesselroade, 2000; Charles, Reynolds, & Gatz, 2001).
There is also evidence that the ability to regulate emotions improves with age. Older
adults report being better able to control their emotions than younger adults (Carstensen
Autobiographical memory and aging
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et al., 2000; Gross et al., 1997), and it seems that this increased ability to regulate
emotions for older adults relies more on antecedent-focused strategies, such as
reappraising an event to alter its emotional impact, than on response-focused strategies,
such as suppressing the expression of an emotion (Carstensen, Gross, & Fung, 1998).
According to socioemotional selectivity theory, the increasing effectiveness of emotion
regulation results from the increasing salience of emotional goals as people approach
the end of life (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999). This theory posits that
changes in emotional goals influence information processing styles over the life span,
with information-gathering being of higher priority for younger adults, and emotion
regulation and the creation of emotional meaning being more important for older adults
(Carstensen et al., 1999). For instance, older adults prefer to spend time with
emotionally meaningful social partners (Fung, Carstensen, & Lutz, 1999) and they
emphasize emotional dimensions more than other personal dimensions in their mental
representations of social partners (Frederickson & Carstensen, 1990).
An enhanced motivation in older adults to process emotionally significant
information could make the age-related decline in memory less pronounced or may even
eliminate it for emotional as compared to neutral stimuli. Consistent with this
proposition, Carstensen and Turk-Charles (1994) found, in a study of prose recall, that
although older adults remembered less neutral content than young adults, both age
groups recalled equivalent amounts of emotional material. More recently, Kensinger,
Brierley, Medford, Growdon, and Corkin (2002) also found that young and older adults
showed similar memory enhancement effects for emotional words or pictures, as
compared to neutral items (see also Denburg, Buchanan, Tranel, & Adolphs, 2003). In
addition, Rahhal, May, and Hasher (2002) reported two studies in which age differences
in memory were robust for perceptual source material but were negligible for affective
Autobiographical memory and aging
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or value-based source information. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest that
age-related decline in memory may vary according to the emotional salience of the to-
be-remembered information.
In addition, other studies suggest that memory may become more emotionally
gratifying with age, with aging being associated with a shift toward favoring positive
rather than negative information in memory (see Mather, 2004 for review). For instance,
Charles, Mather, and Carstensen (2003) found that aging was associated with a higher
decrease in memory for negative pictures, as compared to positive and neutral pictures.
However, this effect has not been observed in other studies (Denburg et al., 2003;
Kensinger et al., 2002). Recently, Kennedy, Mather, and Carstensen (2004) asked 300
nuns aged between 47 and 102 years to complete a questionnaire in which they had to
remember their responses to a questionnaire they had completed 14 years earlier about
their health practices and medical history. In accordance with the idea that older adults
are more motivated than younger adults to remember their past in emotionally satisfying
ways, the authors found that older adults showed a positive bias when remembering
their past health practice and illnesses, whereas middle-aged adults showed a negative
bias. Other studies also indicate that older adults recall negative emotions less intensely
(Levine & Bluck, 1997) and remember past choices more positively (Mather &
Johnson, 2000) than younger adults.
Reviewing these and other studies concerning emotional memory in aging,
Mather (2004) identified two major hypotheses concerning how the impact of emotion
on memory may differ between older and younger adults: the emotional compensation
hypothesis, which states that well-maintained emotional processes can help older adults
remember information they otherwise would have forgotten, and the goal-directed
emotional memory hypothesis, which states that memory should become more
Autobiographical memory and aging
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emotionally gratifying with age, as older adults focus on regulating emotion more than
younger adults. As the studies we mentioned above indicate, there is evidence consistant
with both hypotheses. However, the majority of these studies used experimental stimuli
such as words or pictures, leaving unresolved the issue of whether these two hypotheses
can account for age-related differences in memory for more personally meaningful
events (i.e., autobiographical memory). This issue was examined in the present study by
asking older and younger adults to retrieve memories for positive, negative, and neutral
autobiographical events and to rate the sensorial and contextual characteristics of their
memories.
Method
Participants
Forty younger participants (19 women and 21 men, M age = 22.1, range= 17-
31) and forty older adults (19 women and 21 men, M age = 63.5, range = 59-71)
participated in this experiment. The younger adults were undergraduate students at the
University of Liège. Older adults were in good health and were free from sensory
difficulties or had corrected vision or hearing. All subjects completed the Mill-Hill
vocabulary test (French translation by Deltour, 1993) and the Beck Depression
Inventory (BDI; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979). Mill-Hill and BDI scores were
slightly higher for older than for younger participants, t(2, 78) = 2.87, p < .05, and t(2,
78) = 2.06, p < .05, respectively. However, the scores obtained for the BDI reflected
an absence of depression in both groups. The mean scores for age, years of education,
BDI and Mill Hill for the total sample are presented in Table 1
-Table 1 about here-
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Materials
Instructions
Participants filled in a questionnaire which asked them to recall six personal
experiences that had occurred within the past 5 years and that were at least 6 months
old: two that were positive or pleasant, two that were negative or unpleasant, and two
that were neutral regarding their emotional content. The events recalled had to be
specific (i.e., they had to have occurred in a specific place and time and they had to
have lasted several minutes or hours but not more than a day). To illustrate what could
be a positive, a negative, or a neutral event, the instructions provided some examples.
However, the instructions clearly indicated that participants were not limited to using
only these examples. For positive and negative events, participants had to choose the
most intense if several events came to their mind. This was done in order to sample
events that were highly contrasted with regard to their emotional meaning. For each
event, participants were asked to think about that event for two or three minutes and to
try remembering it as clearly as possible before going on to the next part of the
questionnaire.
Ratings of memories
Participants were first invited to describe in a few words the content of the
retrieved event. They were nonetheless free to skip this question. This was done in order
to prevent a change of memory if participants judged it would have been embarrassing
to report it. Participants then rated their memories on sixteen dimensions drawn from
the Memory Characteristics Questionnaire (MCQ; Johnson et al., 1988). These ratings
were made with 7-point scales. Memories were rated for vividness (1 = vague, 7 = very
vivid), amount of details (1 = not at all detailed, 7 = very detailed), visual details (1 =
none, 7 = a lot), odors (1 = none, 7 = a lot), taste (1 = none, 7 = a lot), clarity of location
Autobiographical memory and aging
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memory (1 = not at all clear, 7 = very clear), clarity of spatial disposition of objects (1 =
not at all clear, 7 = very clear) and persons (1 = not at all clear, 7 = very clear), clarity of
memory for the moment when the event occurred (1 = not at all clear, 7 = very clear),
familiarity of the general setting (1= not at all familiar, 7 = very familiar), complexity of
storyline (1 = simple, 7 = complex), intensity of positive (1 = none, 7 = very intense)
and negative (1 = none, 7 = very intense) feelings when the event occurred, personal
importance of the event (1= not important at all, 7 = very important), amount of
rehearsal by thinking (1 = not at all, 7 = very often) and talking (1 = not at all, 7 = very
often) about the event. Participants were also asked to report the approximate age of the
memories retrieved, by choosing among six different propositions (between six months
and one year; between one year and eighteen months; between eighteen months and two
years; between two and three years; between three and four years; between four and five
years). Participants were debriefed concerning the purpose of the experiment at the end
of the session.
Questionnaire construction
The first page of the questionnaire informed participants that the experiment
concerned the recall of personal events, that it was anonymous, and that they were free
to withdraw from the experiment at any time. The instructions for each event
participants had to remember were given on one page, and the two pages following
these instructions contained the sixteen memory characteristics ratings. Participants
recalled one event of each type (positive, negative, neutral) first and then another event
of each type. Thirty-six versions of the questionnaire were constructed by systematically
varying the order of recall for positive, negative, and neutral events (six possibilities for
the first three memories X six possibilities for the second three memories).
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Results
Memory characteristics ratings
The mean ratings for each memory characteristic are presented in Table 2 as a
function of age and event type. A 2 X 3 multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA)
was conducted to assess the effects of age (young, old) and event type (positive,
negative, neutral) on memory characteristics ratings. Age was a between-subjects factor
and event type a within-subject factor. This MANOVA revealed a number of significant
multivariate and univariate effects.
-Table 2 about here-
The main effect of age was significant at the multivariate level, Λ(16, 63) =
0.64, p < .05, and was significant for four characteristics at the univariate level.
Memories were rated as being more vivid (M = 6.07 vs M = 5.44), F(1, 78) = 12.94, p <
.01, and as containing more details (M = 5.25 vs M = 4.84 ), F(1, 78) = 9.52, p < .01, for
older as compared to younger participants. Memory for the moment when the events
occurred was also clearer for older than for younger participants (M = 5.87 vs M =
5.22), F(1, 78) = 10.22, p < .01. In contrast, the events were rated as being more
complex for younger than for older adults (M = 2.77 vs M = 2.26), F(1, 78) = 3.85, p =
.05. There were no age differences for the other memory characteristics
1
.
The main effect of event type was significant at the multivariate level, Λ(32,
47) = 0.038, p < .0001, and was significant for all the characteristics at the univariate
level (all ps < .05), except for familiarity of the general setting (p = .30). To find
differences among the three types of events, a series of planned comparisons was
computed (p < .05). Memories of positive and negative events were more vivid and
were more detailed than memories of neutral events, whereas positive and negative
memories did not differ. With regard to sensorial details, positive and negative
Autobiographical memory and aging
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memories contained more visual details than neutral ones. Positive and negative
memories were not different. For odors, positive memories received higher ratings than
did negative and neutral memories, and negative memories received equivalent ratings
as neutral ones. For taste, positive memories received higher ratings than did negative
and neutral ones, and negative memories received lower ratings than neutral ones.
With regard to clarity of location memory and clarity of time memory, there
were no differences between positive and negative memories, and both of them received
higher ratings than neutral ones. Spatial location of objects and people was more clearly
remembered for positive and negative memories than for neutral ones, with no
differences between positive and negative memories. The storyline was rated as more
complex for negative than for positive and neutral events, and positive events were rated
as more complex than neutral ones.
With regard to emotional feelings, positive events encompassed more intense
positive feelings than both negative and neutral events, and neutral events encompassed
more intense positive feelings than negative ones. Negative events encompassed more
intense negative feelings than both positive and neutral events, and positive events
encompassed less intense negative feelings than neutral ones. For personal importance
of the events and the frequency with which participants thought about them, positive
and negative events received higher ratings than neutral events, and negative events
higher ratings than positive ones. Participants also rated that they talked more often
about positive and negative events than about neutral ones, with no differences between
positive and negative events.
Finally, the MANOVA indicated a significant group by event type interaction,
Λ(32, 47) = 0.38, p < .01, and this interaction was significant for four characteristics at
the univariate level (see Table 2 for F and p values). These characteristics were
Autobiographical memory and aging
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vividness of the memory, clarity of memory for the moment when the event occurred,
complexity of the storyline, and intensity of positive emotions. Planned comparisons (p
< .05) indicated that older participants had more vivid memories than younger
participants for negative and neutral but not for positive events. Older participants also
gave higher ratings than younger participants for clarity of time memory of neutral but
not of positive and negative events. Negative events contained more intense positive
feelings for older than for younger participants whereas this was not the case for
positive and neutral events. Finally, younger adults rated the storyline of negative, but
not of positive or neutral, events as more complex than older adults.
Age of the memories
Because the age of the retrieved memories were distributed as a function of
rank (see Table 3), nonparametric statistical procedures were used. Univariate analyses
of variance (ANOVAs) were computed to rate the effect of event type and of age group
on the age of the retrieved memories which encompassed six levels (between 6 months
and one year; between one year and eighteen months; between eighteen months and two
years; between two and three years; between three and four years; between four and five
years). A Friedman test revealed that event type had a significant effect on rank means,
χ
2
(2, N = 80) = 33.93 p < .0001. Post-hoc analyses indicated two significant effects (p <
.05): positive and negative memories were both rated as older than neutral memories.
Mann-Whitney U tests indicated that older and younger participants did not differ in the
age of the memories they retrieved, U = 766.5, p = .74 for positive memories, U = 769,
p = .76 for negative memories, and U = 795, p = .96 for neutral memories.
-Table 3 about here-
Autobiographical memory and aging
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Discussion
The purpose of the present study was to explore age-related differences in
phenomenal characteristics of memories for positive, negative, and neutral events. We
found that memories for positive events were not qualitatively different between
younger and older adults. In contrast, negative memories were associated with a higher
intensity of positive feelings and a reduced complexity of storyline in older as compared
to younger adults. These results could be seen as cues of better emotion regulation
processes in the elderly. As a major goal in later years is to regulate emotions and to
create an emotionally meaningful life story (Carstensen et al., 1999), older people may
have a greater tendency to reappraise their past by focusing on the positive aspects of
negative events. Gross et al.’s (1997) findings that older adults adopt increasingly
effective antecedent-focused emotional regulation strategies (i.e., strategies that attempt
to prevent the development of emotion, such as reappraisal of the stimuli) compared to
younger adults are consistent with this assumption. Furthermore, a study reported by
Folkman, Lazarus, Pimley, and Novacek (1987) indicates that, as compared to younger
adults, older adults use more positive reappraisal of stressful events in order to
neutralize their impact. The present finding that negative events were rated as
containing more positive emotions in older adults further suggests that these kinds of
reapprasail strategies may affect the way older people remember their past, with older
adults reconstructing negative past experiences in a more positive light. This is
consistent with Kennedy et al.’s (2004) finding that older adults have a positive biais
when remembering their past health practice and illnesses, and both studies support the
view that memory becomes more emotionally gratifying with age (i.e., the goal-directed
emotional memory hypothesis; Mather, 2004). Contrary to older adults, a major goal of
younger adults is to learn new information about the social and physical world
Autobiographical memory and aging
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(Carstensen et al., 1999). The finding that younger adults’ memories of negative events
have more complex storylines may reflect these age-related differences in information
processing. Indeed, younger adults may extract more information from negative events
(including information that may be perceived as contradictory, as is often the case in
events that involve complex social interactions) in order to handle these kinds of events
better in the future, and consequently they may remember these events in a more
complex manner than older adults.
The greater vividness for negative and neutral memories in older adults that was
observed in the present study is an unexpected finding, although a greater vividness of
autobiographical memories in aging has already been reported in a previous study by
Cohen and Faulkner (1988). In that study, participants aged between 20 and 87 years
had to retrieve six of their most vivid memories. They were asked to give a brief
description of the remembered event and to rate it as a function of different dimensions
such as importance, vividness, and emotionality. The results showed that older adults
rated their memories as more vivid than the young and middle-aged participants.
Furthermore, contrary to the younger participants, remote memories of older adults
were not significantly less vivid than recent memories. Cohen (1998) argued that these
results may be due to the fact that memories were self-selected (i.e., participants were
allowed to choose which memories to report). When this is the case, the memories
people select for report would tend to be those that are particularly accessible, vivid, and
significant, thereby reducing age-related differences in memory vividness. By contrast,
memories would be less detailed for older than younger adults when the events to be
recalled are designated by the experimenter (i.e., when participants are asked to recall a
specific event like the birth of a sibling for instance). In the present study, the memories
recalled were self-selected by participants (i.e., participants could retrieve any memories
Autobiographical memory and aging
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provided that they belonged to a specific life period and were associated with a
particular emotional content). Thus, older adults may have selected personal memories
that would have been highly accessible, vivid, and important for their self-concept,
therefore masking an age-related decline in memory vividness that would have appeared
for memories that are less important. Some studies investigated age-related differences
in memory for emotional events that were designated by the experimenter (i.e.,
flashbulb memories; Brown & Kulik, 1977) but the results are equivocal. Cohen,
Conway, and Maylor (1994) found that flashbulb memories of older adults were
associated with a loss of detail and accuracy. By contrast, Davidson and Glisky (2002)
reported that flashbulb memories were retained to an equivalent degree among younger
and older adults over time. These divergent findings may be due to differences in the
emotional meaning of the event for the rememberer. Emotional memories that are less
important for the individual’s life story may be more likely associated with a loss of
details over time in older than in younger adults. In future studies, it would be
interesting to vary the method that is used to elicit autobiographical memories (i.e., self-
selected vs experimenter-designated) as well as the importance of these memories for
the life story in order to clarify these issues.
The present finding that older adults reported a higher clarity for the memory of
the moment when neutral events occurred could be due to differences in life experiences
of both groups of participants. Given that older adults should have experienced more
neutral events than younger adults because of their age, one could argue that the
moment when the event took place is a more important reference mark for the elderly
than for younger adults because of their longer life. Key questions such as the moment
when the event occurred would be more likely to take place automatically in the
reconstructive process of retrieving autobiographical memory in older adults because it
Autobiographical memory and aging
18
would allow to rapidly place the event within a certain period of their lifetime.
Therefore, the memories for the moment when the events occurred may be more often
accessed and hence rehearsed by older than by younger participants.
With regard to the influence of emotion on phenomenal characteristics of
autobiographical memories, we found that emotional (positive and negative) memories
received higher ratings than neutral ones for most of the characteristics and both for
older and younger adults. These findings are consistent with the idea that emotional
events tend to be more elaborated during encoding and subsequently more often
rehearsed by social sharing and thoughts (Ochsner & Schacter, 2000), and they further
indicates that this effect of emotion is similar in younger and older adults. Contrary to
previous studies (D’Argembeau et al., 2003; Destun & Kuiper, 1999), positive
memories were overall not more detailed than negative memories in the present study,
except for taste and odors. A potential explanation for the failure to find some
differences in phenomenal characteristics of positive and negative memories could
come from the age of the retrieved memories. In previous studies focusing on
autobiographical memories for positive and negative events, the remembered events
were very recent: they had to have occurred within the last month (Destun & Kuiper,
1999) or within the last year (D’Argembeau et al., 2003). In contrast, the events recalled
in the present study were more remote: they ranged from 6 months to 5 years. Ross and
Wilson (2000) proposed that an essential function of the self is to evaluate past
information in order to enhance current views of the self. According to these authors,
retrospective evaluation of the self in the past depends on the perceived temporal
distance between present and past selves. People should generally evaluate a temporally
close past self favorably (especially on currently important attributes) because people
experience close selves similarly to current ones. In contrast, people may be more
Autobiographical memory and aging
19
inclined to depreciate more distant selves because characteristics of these past selves are
less important for current self-views and because people can see themselves as
improving when evaluating themselves negatively in the distant past. This perceived
temporal distance between present and past selves may have interacted with the retrieval
of autobiographical memories for positive and negative events and this may explain
contradictory findings between previous studies and the present one. Positive and
negative events that were sampled in previous studies (D’Argembeau et al., 2003;
Destun & Kuiper, 1999) were recent (involved a temporally close self) and
consequently the negative events remembered in those studies tended to have important
implications for the current self and risked tarnishing current self-views. Accordingly, it
may be that autobiographical knowledge about these recent past negative events was
inhibited by the self during retrieval, rendering memories for those events less detailed
than memories for positive events (D’Argembeau et al., 2003). In contrast, negative
events that were sampled in the present study were more distant and, consequently,
were probably less threatening for current self-views. Accordingly, the construction of
detailed memories for these negative events would not have been inhibited in the same
way as more recent negative self-knowledge and this could explain why negative
memories were not less detailed than positive memories in the present study. It would
be interesting to test the influence of the remoteness of positive and negative memories
on their phenomenal characteristics in order to clarify this issue.
In summary, the present study investigated phenomenal characteristics of
autobiographical memories for positive, negative, and neutral events in older and
younger adults. The influence of emotion on sensorial and contextual details of the
memories was similar in both age groups, with emotional memories (both positive and
negative) receiving higher ratings than neutral memories. For negative memories,
Autobiographical memory and aging
20
however, older adults rated the events as containing more positive feelings and as being
less complex than younger adults. These latter findings may reflect age-related
differences in processing goals, with older adults being more motivated to regulate their
emotions thus making them reappraise negative events in a more positive light.
Autobiographical memory and aging
21
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Footnotes
1
The power (1-beta) to detect a “medium” size difference (d = .50; Cohen, 1988) between
younger and older adults was .72 with an alpha level of .05. When alpha was raised to .10,
power was .83, which is satisfactory according to Cohen’s suggestion to use beta = .20 (i.e.,
power of .80). Even in this case, there were no age differences (all ps > .11), suggesting that
the absence of differences between younger and older adults was not due to a lack of power.
Autobiographical memory and aging
27
Table 1. General Characteristics of Younger and Older Adults
Younger Older
Characteristic
M SD M SD
Mean age (years) 22.1 3.36 63.5 2.76
Education 15.3 2.89 14.5 2.26
BDI 3.0 2.86 4.6 4.09
MILL HILL 24.9 4.58 27.6 4.04
Autobiographical memory and aging
28
Table 2. Means for the MCQ ratings as a Function of Event Type (Positive, Negative,
Neutral) and Age Group (Old, Young), and Fs values for the Interaction Between these Two
Factors
Positive Negative Neutral Univariate Fs
MCQ Old Young Old Young Old Young
F(2, 156)
p =
Vividness
6.27 6.00 6.45 5.97 5.48 4.36 5.25
.006
Amount of
details
5.88 5.31 6.05 5.15 4.63 4.06 0.74 .48
Visual details
6.07 6.20 5.86 6.00 5.47 5.30 0.57 .56
Odors
3.21 3.27 2.17 2.13 2.41 2.38 0.03 .96
Taste
3.17 2.65 1.17 1.30 1.53 1.57 1.83 .16
Location
6.52 6.58 6.61 6.46 6.28 6.23 0.35 .70
Objects
5.51 5.31 5.45 4.92 4.78 4.60 0.48 .61
Persons
5.45 5.05 5.78 5.23 4.42 4.28 0.56 .56
Time
6.03 5.80 6.22 5.71 5.37 4.16 4.48
.01
Setting
4.20 4.35 4.73 4.60 4.81 4.23 1.02 .36
Storyline
2.08 2.50 2.66 4.13 2.03 1.66 11.67
.0001
Positive
feelings
6.15 6.52 2.13 1.51 3.02 2.76 3.14
.04
Negative
feelings
1.56 1.42 6.17 6.26 2.05 1.80 0.51 .59
Personal
importance
6.00 6.06 6.56 6.13 3.03 2.60 1.21 .29
Thinking
5.25 5.27 5.96 5.80 2.42 1.92 1.14 .32
Talking
4.53 4.67 4.77 4.38 2.22 1.91 1.03 .35
Autobiographical memory and aging
29
Table 3. Number of Memories Retrieved by Younger and Older Participants as a Function of
Event Type (Positive, Negative, Neutral) and Age of the Memory
Older Younger
Age of the memories Positive Negative Neutral Positive Negative Neutral
Six month-one year
31 22 40 25 19 41
One year – eighteen months
9 10 14 17 15 15
Eighteen months - two years
11 11 8 16 6 7
Two years- three years
13 16 12 9 17 11
Three years-four years
8 7 2 6 9 5
Four years-five years
8 14 4 7 14 1
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This study examined the effects of emotional valence of an event and individual differences in absorption on the phenomenal characteristics associated with real and imagined events. Each participant described four events. Two of these were real and two were imagined, with one pleasant and stressful event being generated for each category. Pleasant events (both real and imagined) contained more detail (visual detail, smell, and taste, and more information regarding location, time, etc.) than stressful events. In addition, higher levels of absorption were related to higher ratings for both real and imagined events (for both pleasant and stressful events). Discussion focused on implications for further research in source monitoring and other relevant domains. Copyright (C) 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Chapter
This chapter discusses memory in the elderly and examines age-related changes in emotional processing - in mechanisms of emotional regulation and arousal, for example, considered both psychologically and in terms of their neural mechanisms. It then offers an intriguing set of suggestions about how these changes should influence emotional memory. Among other issues, it considers whether the older person's improved ability to regulate emotion implies that memories should become more emotionally gratifying, as well as whether the emotional qualities of experience might actually protect an individual against the age-related decline in memory. These suggestions are then evaluated by reviewing the current literature on age differences in the effects of emotion on memory. Existing behavioral studies on emotion and aging indicate that the relationship between emotion and memory should change as people age. The link between aging and flashbulb memories is also considered.
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This study examined the effects of emotional valence of an event and individual differences in absorption on the phenomenal characteristics associated with real and imagined events. Each participant described four events. Two of these were real and two were imagined, with one pleasant and stressful event being generated for each category. Pleasant events (both real and imagined) contained more detail (visual detail, smell, and taste, and more information regarding location, time, etc.) than stressful events. In addition, higher levels of absorption were related to higher ratings for both real and imagined events (for both pleasant and stressful events). Discussion focused on implications for further research in source monitoring and other relevant domains. Copyright © 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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The recent attempt to move research in cognitive psychology out of the laboratory makes autobiographical memory appealing, because naturalistic studies can be done while maintaining empirical rigor. Many practical problems fall into the category of autobiographical memory, such as eyewitness testimony, survey research, and clinical syndromes in which there are distortions of memory. Its scope extends beyond psychology into law, medicine, sociology, and literature. Work on autobiographical memory has matured since David Rubin's Autobiographical Memory appeared in 1986, and the timing is right for a new overview of the topic. Remembering our Past presents innovative research chapters and general reviews, covering such topics as emotions, eyewitness memory, false memory syndrome, and amnesia. The volume will appeal to graduate students and researchers in cognitive science and psychology.