April 5, 2011 at 9:55 AM ET
Ever wonder why the bad times seem so much easier to remember than the good ones? Scientists may have found the explanation: A new study shows that your memory doesn’t work as well when you’re in a good mood.
“Other studies have found that you have more creativity when you’re in a good mood,” says the study’s lead author, Elizabeth A. Martin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. “We may have found something that a good mood is bad for.”
At the beginning of the study, Martin and her co-author assessed the moods of 180 college students. Then half the study volunteers were shown a video designed to make them feel good -- 15 minutes from Jerry Seinfeld’s stand up comedy video, “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.” The other half were shown a home improvement video called “How Do I: Flooring,” which explained how to install different types of floor coverings.
After the videos, the volunteers’ moods were assessed once again -- sure enough, the Seinfeld viewers were happier, while the moods of the other volunteers were unchanged.
Next Martin sat her volunteers down and gave them a memory test. They were told they would hear a list of single digit numbers and would then be asked to recall the last six without being told in advance how many numbers would be in the list. Then Martin listed 12 to 20 numbers for the volunteers, with just four seconds between each item.
Martin repeated the test 18 times with each person. And as it turns out, there was a clear difference in the volunteers’ ability to parrot back the numbers: Those who saw the Seinfeld video had a harder time remembering all six.
What is it about a good mood that makes memory bad? Martin isn’t sure, but she’s willing to guess.
The same thing that makes us more creative at these times -- our tendency to focus on many things rather than just one -- may be what makes it hard to remember, she says. Put simply, we’re just a bit more scattered when we’re in a good mood.
The solution is simple. If you know that your memory isn’t going to be as reliable when you’re in a good mood, you can take steps to counter that effect, like writing down people’s phone numbers or consciously associating something important with a new acquaintance’s name.
Do you think you get a little spacier when you're happy?
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