Home > Memory > The Power of Suggestion and Emotion on Our (False) Memories

The Power of Suggestion and Emotion on Our (False) Memories

How well do you remember the highly emotional events of your life? People generally hold strong and vivid memories of these events, both happy, like one’s first kiss, or sad like the death of a family member. Research has shown that memories are highly susceptible to distortion through time and suggestion. Emotion plays a large role in memory. Our experiences are always being shaped by our moods and emotions at that time. Evidence has shown that emotional information and events are remembered better and more vividly, but are more susceptible to distortion. There has been great quantity of research done on emotion’s effect on memory and suggestion’s effect on memory, but very little on the effect that emotion has on suggestion of memory. A 2014 study by Ilse Van Damme and Karolien Smets took a look at that phenomenon. The study was interested in false memories and the factors that produce them.


The study is entitled, The Power of Emotion Versus the Power of Suggestion: Memory for Emotional Events in the Misinformation Paradigm. “What’s the misinformation paradigm?” you might ask. The misinformation paradigm is a scientific process used in experiments to test the phenomenon of false memories. Participants first witness an event through pictures or video. They are then given misleading information on what they’ve seen, most effectively presented in the form of questions to the participant. A final memory test on the original photos or video tests what the participants remember, both true and false memories. A form of this process was used in this experiment. The authors describe that the emotional nature of an event consists of two main features, valence and arousal. Valence refers to the range of how positive or negative and emotion is, and arousal is the degree of activation that it produces. Valence and activation were both manipulated in this experiment to determine their effects on memory and false memory.

The procedure used was relatively simple. Participants were shown six photographs, told to envision themselves in the photograph and talk for thirty seconds about what was going on. The six pictures used were taken from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS), which holds over 1,000 photographs used in experiments like these to evoke human emotion. The pictures varied in arousal and valence. After viewing and talking about the pictures then engaging in a filler task, participants were asked a series of questions about what they saw. Half of the participants were asked questions about actual things they saw, and the other half were asked the same questions, but with misleading information imbedded in them.

“Did you see the white T-shirt the man was wearing underneath his shirt?”
“Did you see the white T-shirt the man was wearing underneath his striped shirt?”

These questions were asked about central and peripheral information of the photographs (ie. The main person/thing in the photograph and the objects in the background). After another filler task, a final memory test was given in the form of statements that the participant labeled true or false. Subjects were then asked to rate each picture on it’s valence and arousal, followed by a debriefing of the experiment and it’s true purpose.

The results support the theory that arousal improves memory, but also show that suggestion is more powerful than emotion. Memory of central information was the most accurate with high arousal and low valence, meaning very emotional with a negative context. On the other hand, Peripheral information was remembered worse with this low valence. This is known as the narrowing effect. When faced with a high arousal, low valence situation, people focus on the central information and remember it better than peripheral information, which is unaffected, or sometimes impaired. Discussed in the paper, this effect can be attributed to evolutionary factors. In the face of fear or danger, humans use their cognitive resources to focus on the source of that fear or danger, not the peripheral features. This improved memory for negative emotional events disappears with the addition of misleading information. The misinformation effect was seen strongest in the peripheral memories of highly emotional and negative events. It is important to note that highly emotional events that were neutral and positive did not show the same effect regarding the peripheral information.

Overall, this study shows that the power of suggestion is very influential on our memories, especially in regards to emotional events. Studies like this are important in understanding and improving eyewitness testimonies and general knowledge of our memories.


Damme, I. V. & Smets, K (2014) PsychArticles Emotion Vol 14(2) The power of emotion versus the power of suggestion: Memory for emotional events in the misinformation paradigm.

Picture – Gizmag.com

Categories: Memory Tags:
  1. December 3rd, 2014 at 20:43 | #1

    I found this article to be interesting because it relates to various aspects of what we have learned about false memories and seems to connect some of these phenomena together. In the experiment mentioned, the difference in the wording of the question that was asked to participants reminds me of an example of misinformation that we talked about in class. In this example of misinformation, participants viewed scenes of accidents and were asked how fast the cars were going with different wording in the question. Like in this study, the wording of a question shaped people’s memory of the scene, suggesting the malleability of memory. The fact that in the study memory of central information was most accurate for highly emotional scenes makes me wonder if this could be explained by flashbulb memories, which are memories for emotionally salient events. This study also mentions the idea of false memories in the peripheral features as well as central features, finding that central information was most accurate. This brings up the question of eyewitness testimony. We don’t have as accurate memory for our peripherals and our memories can be altered by suggestion, showing that eyewitness testimony is not a reliable source.

  2. Emily Doyle
    December 3rd, 2014 at 21:32 | #2

    Cool post! False memories are kind of crazy. I mean, we think our memories are very real, but in reality they could be false. The malleability of memory is kind of a ‘wow’ moment. I think this post is very interesting because it looks at two different ways false memories can be formed. We learned in my cognitive psychology class that emotional memories are often more susceptible to being remembered incorrectly and that our memories can be remembered differently because of suggestibility, but it was nice to see the two researched in tandem.

    The results seem to show that suggestibility is more important than emotion in misremembering, but that suggestibility is more powerful in emotional memories. This shows that when the two are combined, memories can be really bad. Good to know! I hope this triggers more research over mood and sins of malfunction in false memories.

You must be logged in to post a comment.