Adults recall negative events less accurately than children

August, 2010

A word experiment shows that unpleasant or traumatic events are likely to be inaccurately remembered, and this memory distortion increases with age. The findings have implications for eyewitness testimony.

Findings that children are less likely than adults to distort memories when negative emotions are evoked has significant implications for the criminal justice system. Experiments involving children aged seven and 11, and young adults (18-23) found that when they were shown lists of closely related emotional words (e.g. pain, cut, ouch, cry, injury), they would tend to mistakenly remember a related word (e.g. hurt) although it had not been present. Despite the prevailing theory that being involved in a very negative experience focuses your mind and helps you notice and remember details, words that had negative emotional content produced the highest levels of false memory. With arousal (such as would be evoked in a traumatic experience), memory was distorted more. These tendencies increased with age.

Reference: 

[1670] Brainerd, C. J., Holliday R. E., Reyna V. F., Yang Y., & Toglia M. P.
(2010).  Developmental reversals in false memory: Effects of emotional valence and arousal.
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 107(2), 137 - 154.

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