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See Inside July / August 2011

The Power of Negative Thinking

We manipulate our memories to brace for future hardships

Can our expectations for the future change how we remember the past? According to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they can—we remember unpleasant experiences more negatively if we expect to endure them again.

Researchers at New York University and Carnegie Mellon University conducted seven experiments to determine how people’s expectations shape their memories. In one test, they exposed 30 students to the noise of a vacuum cleaner for 40 seconds. Afterward, half were told they would have to hear the noise again, whereas the rest were told the study was over. Everyone was then asked to rate how irritated they were by the noise. Students who expected to hear it again consistently found it more irritating. Other tests involving stimuli that bored and annoyed subjects all yielded the same results.

Jeff Galak, a Carnegie Mellon behavioral sci­entist who worked on the study, suggests that we remember hardships as worse than they actually were so that when we face those experiences again, they will be less painful than we expect. Galak thinks that by understanding this “bracing” strategy individuals can learn to overcome it and stop fearing exaggerated pain. He acknowledges that doing so may backfire, however—it is possible, he says, that by bracing for the worst, we actually suffer less.

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