Emotional valence and the functions of autobiographical memories: Positive and negative memories serve different functions by ProQuest


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									Memory & Cognition
2009, 37 (4), 477-492

                              Emotional valence and the functions
                          of autobiographical memories: Positive and
                          negative memories serve different functions
                                           Anne S. RASmuSSen And doRthe BeRntSen
                                                  Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

                Differences between positive and negative autobiographical memories are often explained with reference
             to hypothesized evolutionary functions. Generally, it has been proposed that autobiographical memory serves
             directive, self-, and social functions. However, the relationship between emotional valence and the three func-
             tions has never been studied. In Study 1, participants generated memories that mapped onto each of the three
             functions. Directive memories were dominated by negative emotion, whereas self- and social memories were
             dominated by positive emotion. In Study 2, participants generated their most positive and most negative memo-
             ries, as well as their most frequent involuntary and most vivid flashbulb memories, and the three functions
             were measured through rating-scale questions. The directive function had the lowest ratings across all memory
             classes, but, consistent with the results of Study 1, positive memories were rated higher on the self- and social
             functions, whereas negative memories were rated higher on the directive function.

   When memory researchers attempt to explain why cer-                 acteristics of emotionally positive and negative memories
tain classes or types of autobiographical memories differ              (see, e.g., Bohn & Berntsen, 2007; Walker, Skowronski,
from others, they often make reference to hypothesized                 & Thompson, 2003). It has been suggested that negative
functions of the memories. For example, it is often as-                memories signal danger and the need for immediate reac-
sumed that autobiographical memory has evolved in order                tion (e.g., Levine & Bluck, 2004; Taylor, 1991), whereas
to serve distinct self-related functions (see, e.g., Badde-            positive memories may have broader and more construc-
ley, 1988; James, 1890/1950; Neisser, 1982a), and that                 tive uses (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005). Consequently,
emotionally negative memories contain information that                 positive and negative memories should differ on the three
is more crucial to our survival than emotionally positive              above-mentioned functions. However, this possibility has
memories, for which reason the two classes of memo-                    not been examined systematically.
ries also differ regarding other characteristics (see, e.g.,              In the present two studies, we examined memory char-
Freud, 1920/1952; Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009;                   acteristics associated with different functions of auto-
Taylor, 1991). Although references to such hypothesized                biographical memories, and in particular whether emo-
evolutionary functions are frequent in the literature, sur-            tionally positive and negative memories serve different
prisingly little research has been conducted to assess their           functions. Because it is likely that any autobiographical
validity. In the present article, we report two studies de-            memory may serve multiple functions, our goal was to
signed to remedy this shortcoming. We define function                  examine the relative dominance of different functions in
as the real-world usefulness and adaptive significance of              different classes of memories. We will first describe the
autobiographical memories (Bruce, 1989, p. 45), and we                 conceptual framework guiding our studies on functional
pursue the hypothesis that different classes of memories               differences. We will then delineate the theoretical back-
serve different functions.                                             ground for our basic predictions regarding functional dif-
   According to several researchers (e.g., Bluck, 2003;                ferences between positive and negative memories.
Cohen, 1998; Pillemer, 1992), autobiographical memory
function can be summarized in terms of three broad cat-                A Functional Approach to Autobiographical
egories: Directive (instrumental and guiding behavior),                Memory: Directive, Self-, and Social Functions
self (self-concept and self-continuity), and social (com-                Several researchers have argued in favor of a functional
municative and social bonding). However, this model                    approach to autobiographical memory (e.g., Baddeley,
does not specify how different classes of autobiographical             1988; Bruce, 1985, 1989; Glenberg, 1997; Nairne & Pan-
memories may serve different functions. For instance, re-              deirada, 2008; Neisser, 1982a), but empirical research
search has shown consistent differences between the char-              has been rather limited until recently (see Bluck, Alea,

                                                    A. S. Rasmussen, annesr@psy.au.dk

                                                                   477                      © 2009 The Psychonomic Society, Inc.
478      Rasmussen and BeRntsen

Habermas, & Rubin, 2005, for a review). Three functions          overlap with the two other functions. Hence, by defini-
have been mentioned repeatedly in the literature (e.g., Pil-     tion, social memories should be more frequently shared
lemer, 1992). In the present article, we adapt the terminol-     in conversation than directive or self-memories. On the
ogy provided by Bluck and Alea (2002) and we refer to            other hand, they might not be subject to as much private
memories that are dominant on one of the three functions         rehearsal as directive or self-memories.
as directive, self-, and social memories.                            Some researchers have pointed out that the tripartite
   The directive function of autobiographical memory             model may not apply to episodes of specific recall, be-
guides present and future thinking and behavior (Pille-          cause individual memories often serve functions in more
mer, 1998). Memories with directive functions assist in          than one category (see, e.g., Conway, 2003). One way of
problem solving and planning (Baddeley, 1988; Cohen,             addressing this concern is to consider the presence of each
1998), and they also inspire, inform, and motivate (Pil-         function as a matter of degree rather than as a binary de-
lemer, 2003). Thus, there seem to be two aspects of the          cision. Others have proposed possible relations between
directive function: One is merely instrumental in a non-         th
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