The Fading Effect

The tendency for unpleasant memories to fade more quickly than pleasant ones.

Surveys conducted in the United States and around the world consistently show that people are generally happy with their lives, even for those with physical and mental disabilities and people without much money. Researchers reviewing several studies on autobiographical memory and happiness have found that human memory is biased toward happiness.

In their article, W. Richard Walker, Ph.D., of Winston-Salem State University and colleagues find two causes for people’s recollection of the past to be positively biased. The first cause, according to their review of the research, seems to be due to the simple fact that pleasant events do in fact outnumber unpleasant events because people seek out positive experiences and avoid negative ones. Across 12 studies conducted by five different research teams, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and participants who ranged in age from late teens to early 50’s consistently reported experiencing more positive events in their lives than negative events.

The other process at work involves our memory system treating pleasant emotions differently from unpleasant emotions. Seven studies reviewed by the researchers provide support for a fading affect for negative emotions. Pleasant emotions have been found to fade more slowly from our memory than unpleasant emotions. One mechanism for this uneven fading may involve a process known as minimization. In order to return to our normal level of happiness, we try to minimize the impact of life events. This minimization process – which occurs biologically, cognitively and socially -- is usually stronger for negative events than for positive events.

“This implies that there is a tendency to ‘deaden’ the emotional impact of negative events relative to the impact of positive events,” according Dr. Walker. “Such deadening occurs directly because people are motivated to view their life events in a relatively positive light.”

The research shows that this fading affect bias represents genuine emotional fading rather than a retrospective error in memory, and it should be viewed as evidence of healthy coping processes operating in memory, according to the authors. They add that this should not be confused with repression, a theory proposed by Sigmund Freud. This research suggests that people do remember negative events; they just remember them less negatively.

Of course, life is not pleasant for everyone. Of the 229 participants involved in eight reviewed studies where diary entries were tracked, 17 reported more unpleasant than pleasant events, indicating that the fading affect does not work for everyone. Among those with mild depression, unpleasant and pleasant emotions tend to fade evenly. In a new study to be published by the review authors, 330 participants recalled six emotionally intense memories from their lives and provided a series of ratings for each event. The participants were also assessed on depression levels. The researchers found increased levels of depression were associated with a greater disruption of the fading affect bias.

These findings are published in the June 2003 issue of Review of General Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).