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Arousal, valence, and memory for detail

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A common finding in the emotion-memory literature is that memory is enhanced for positively arousing stimuli and negatively arousing stimuli relative to neutral stimuli. We tested the notion that post-stimulus elaboration is responsible for these effects. Post-stimulus elaboration refers to the process of thinking about an event (after its offset) more frequently or more in-depth. We tested the hypothesis by presenting participants with 36 slides depicting events that varied in arousal (low and high) and valence (positive and negative). The opportunity for elaboration was manipulated by requiring participants, during the inter-slide interval, to complete addition problems, simply view the addition problems, or view a blank slide. Cued recall memory was tested for central and background details. Based on the post-stimulus elaboration hypothesis it was expected that the greatest memory decline would occur for the central details of negatively and positively arousing slides when participants were required to complete addition problems (i.e., a distractor task × arousal × detail interaction). Contrary to the hypothesis, we found that filling the inter-slide interval with a distractor task decreased memory for negative stimuli compared to positive stimuli. This effect was independent of arousal. We also found that arousal increased central detail memory for positive and negative stimuli and background detail memory for positive stimuli but not for negative stimuli. This interaction was explained on the basis of pre-attentive encoding and cue utilisation. It was concluded that in order to understand the complex relationship between emotion and memory, future studies should include, as a minimum, the variables of valence, arousal, and detail.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, MI, USA

Publication date: March 1, 2004

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