False memories in therapy have previously been identified as problematic, but memory-of-emotion distortions have been under-discussed in this context. Past research has suggested that cognitive reappraisals are associated with changes in memory of emotions.
In a new study, scientists have suggested that as our memories fade, we rely on our current assessment of a person to remember how we felt about them in the past. And this extends to some of the most central figures in our lives: our parents.
Lead author Lawrence Patihis, a researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi said, “Memories of the love we felt in childhood towards our parents are among the most precious aspects of autobiographical memory we could think of. Yet our findings suggest that these memories of love are malleable—which is not something we would want to be true.”
“If you change your evaluation of someone, you will likely also change your memory of your emotions towards them and this is true of memory of love towards mothers in childhood.”
Scientists recruited 301 online participants. Some of the participants wrote about recent examples of their mother’s positive attributes, such as showing warmth, generosity, competence, and giving good guidance; others wrote about recent examples of their mother’s lack of these attributes, such as showing warmth, generosity, competence, and giving good guidance. Other participants wrote about recent examples of their mother’s lack of these attributes. Participants in one comparison group wrote about a teacher and participants in another comparison group received no writing prompt at all.
Scientists then asked participants to complete the Memory of Love Towards Parents Questionnaire (MLPQ), which contained 10 items designed to measure the love participants remembered feeling for their mother at different ages. The MLPQ also measured participants’ current feelings of love for their mothers.
The participants completed the measures again 2 weeks and 4 weeks after the initial session.
The results showed that the writing prompts influenced participants’ current feelings and their memories of love. Specifically, participants who were prompted to write about their mother’s positive attributes tended to recall stronger feelings of love for their mother in first, sixth, and ninth grade compared with participants who wrote about their mother’s lack of positive attributes.
These effects endured at the 4-week follow-up for first-grade memories, but not for memories of sixth grade or ninth grade.
In the 2nd experiment with 302 online participants, This time, the participants did not differ in their current assessments of their mother before receiving the writing prompt, indicating that the effects of the writing prompts were not due to preexisting differences among participants.
The findings also revealed that participants’ current feelings of love for their mothers, as measured at the start of the experiment, were misremembered 8 weeks later following the experimental manipulation. The writing prompt effects had begun to fade by the time the researchers conducted an 8-week follow-up after the experiment.
Patihis said, “The significance of this research lies in the new knowledge that our current evaluations of people can be lowered if we choose to focus on the negative, and this can have a side effect: the diminishing of positive aspects of childhood memories.”
“We wonder if wide-ranging reappraisals of parents— perhaps in life or in therapy—could lead to intergenerational heartache and estrangement. Understanding this subtle type of memory distortion is necessary if we want to prevent it.”
The findings are published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.