How thinking about what could have been affects how we feel about what was.
Episodic counterfactual thoughts (CFT) and autobiographical memories (AM) involve the reactivation and recombination of episodic memory components into mental simulations. Upon reactivation, memories become labile and prone to modification. Thus, reactivating AM in the context of mentally generating CFT may provide an opportunity for editing processes to modify the content of the original memory. To examine this idea, this paper reports the results of two studies that investigated the effect of reactivating negative and positive AM in the context of either imagining a better (i.e. upward CFT) or a worse (i.e. downward CFT) alternative to an experienced event, as opposed to attentively retrieving the memory without mental modification (i.e. remembering) or no reactivation. Our results suggest that attentive remembering was the best strategy to both reduce the negative affect associated with negative AM, and to prevent the decay of positive affect associated with positive AM. In addition, reactivating positive, but not negative, AM with or without CFT modification reduces the perceived arousal of the original memory over time. Finally, reactivating negative AM in a downward CFT or an attentive remembering condition increases the perceived detail of the original memory over time.
De Brigard, F; Hanna, E; St Jacques, PL; Schacter, DL
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