Home > Memory > If I could just stop thinking about it! The effect of emotional input on working memory.

If I could just stop thinking about it! The effect of emotional input on working memory.

An overtime loss. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t all your fault. Now you sit in the image001library trying to finish your research paper due in an hour; you can’t concentrate as visions of the puck slowly sliding through your goalie pads into the awaiting net behind you consume your thoughts. Do you ever find yourself helplessly replaying events that you’re upset about while trying to focus on something else? But why do we have so much trouble thinking when something is bothering us, yet we can work so productively the rest of the time?

If only we could effectively think about multiple things at the same time. You could process the events of the game last night while writing your paper; you could replay that upsetting fight you had with your boyfriend while studying for your Spanish vocab quiz. Essentially, our lives would be that much more efficient, if only we could process multiple thoughts at once.

Unfortunately, we don’t have this ability because we only have one working memory. According to prominent cognitive psychologist, Alan Baddeley’s working memory model (2000), our working memory controls all of our conscious thoughts—it can be thought of as an executive control center that decides what we are thinking about currently, as well as what we should think about next. Our environment continuously presents new information that we must process; simultaneously, information that we’re actively thinking about reminds us of things we have done or knowledge that we have learned about in the past— triggering information that is stored in our long-term memory. Thus, our working memory must constantly integrate new and old information, producing a continuous train of thoughts. However, the functioning capabilities of this cognitive system are limited, as it is only able to process so much information at once; it can be easy to take our working memory for granted, as we may not realize how much information must be considered. Click here to read about another interesting way that our working memory effects us!

Every conscious thing we do, including every decision that we make is a consequence of our working memory. And how we make decisions doesn’t just depend on one piece of information, it depends on all the information presented to the working memory, which as we now know, includes both incoming and stored information. So, if our ability to function as humans is so contingent on this particular memory system, what affects its performance?

Over the past few decades, researchers in the field of cognitive psychology have examined the functioning of the working memory in various contexts. A common occurrence among these studies has identified emotional information as a contributing factor to our working memory capabilities—particularly our ability to make decisions. Decision-making executed by our working memory encompasses simple tasks like determining what we should eat for breakfast or what to wear in the morning; it also extends to much more complex tasks, such as deciding which multiple choice answer is correct on a test, or whether or not to shoot, pass, or dribble the ball in a basketball game. No matter who we are and what we are doing, decision-making is critical in all of our daily lives; thus, its variability in response to emotional stimuli has significant implications for all of us.

A study conducted by Galindo et al., (2015) explored the effect of emotional valence of visual information on working memory performance. In psychology, emotional valence refers to the response triggered by particular stimuli; so for example, a happy face is considered a positively valenced stimulus since it generally evokes inherently positive or attractive feelings, whereas a sad face is considered to be negatively valenced. An example of a neutral valenced stimulus would be a face that is not showing any emotion. Further, in this study, researchers were interested in whether the presentation of emotionally positive, negative, or neutral valenced stimuli would affect individual’s working memory abilities.

Researchers assembled 240 pictures, grouped into three equal sets of 80 pictures that included facial images, objects, and scenes that depicted positive, negative, or neutral emotional valences. A scene showing two bunnies kissing would be an example of a scene that provokes a positive emotional valence. A picture of a person exhibiting a fearful face would be an example of a negatively valenced facial image whereas a picture of a non-expressive face would be an example of a neutrally valenced image. In order to assess working memory, participants were presented with one image, followed by a 4-second delay, then a second image. The second image was either identical to the first, or it was slightlbnnnyy different. Participants were instructed to maintain the first image in their memory in order to compare the second image and determine whether the two were the same or different, see figure right. Each participant underwent a series of trials that included pairs of positively, negatively, and neutrally valenced images. The response time and accuracy rate were measured and recorded for each group.

Galindo et al., (2015) found that images with a negative valence resulted in people making more mistakes and their response times were slower. On the contrary, neutral images resulted in the shortest reaction time and the highest accuracy response. So this means that individuals were much slower and less accurate in processing visual information with negative valence compared to that with positive or neutral valence. These findings suggest that emotional valence has a significant effect on working memory processes, such that negative emotions reduce processing speed, efficiency, and ability. To see the original Galindo et al., (2015) paper Click Here.

As this research suggests, negative emotions actually impair the functioning of our working memory. So when we are upset or reminded of sad things, our ability to make decisions is actually diminished. Our working memory must work to inhibit the associations that our mind automatically triggers in response to sad stimuli, further adding to our working memory’s extensive list of responsibilities. Bradley and Lang (2006) suggest there are two motivational systems, aversive and attractive,that affect behavior. Perhaps by activating attractive stimuli, we would give our working memories a better chance! So the next time we find ourselves frustrated because we are unable to study for a test or focus on a problem set, think of sugar-plums and a crackling Christmas fire!



Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?. Trends in Cognitive Sciences4, 417-423.

Bradley, M., & Lang, P. (2006). Emotion and motivation. Handbook of psychophysiology. Cambridge University Press, 2007

Galindo, G., Fraga, M., Machinskaya, R., Solovieva, Y., & Mangan, P. (2015). Effect of emotionally valenced stimuli on working memory performance. Psychology & Neuroscience8, 333.


  1. kmgibney
    December 9th, 2015 at 19:10 | #1

    After reading this article, so many things make sense. I find it far too frequent that I am sitting in the library trying to get work done but can’t stop thinking about something bad that went wrong that day. Although I didn’t know that negative emotions actually impair our working memory and cognitive function, I do believe I self-consciously try to avoid negative occurrences before I need to use my brain. For example, if I have a french test at 10 and am receiving my latest bio quiz or exam at 9:50, I make it a point not to look at my score just in case I didn’t do as well as I hope. Without even realizing it, I seem to be avoiding negative emotions so that my working memory will not be impaired.
    On top of this, it seems that these negative emotions impairing working memory could be linked to multitasking and how multitasking can decrease your attention to one task. When you are attending to one stimuli, your attention to other stimuli decreases. This is because the stimuli you are attending to is consuming resources that cannot be shared with the other stimuli. This could play a part in why negative emotions decrease our working memory processes. Our working memory may be consciously thinking about that nagging negative thought and thus decreasing the attention given to another conscious thought. In this way, it appears that attention and memory are interconnected.
    Im curious to know how long negative emotions influence our working memory. Do they linger in our subconscious or do they stop affecting us the minute we stop dwelling on them. An expansion on this experiment could be interesting in that sense. With this, I also wonder how, if at all, emotions affect our other memory, not just working. We know that they can affect retrieval, as shown by blocking, but maybe they can affect our memory in other ways like in working memory.

  2. December 9th, 2015 at 19:18 | #2

    This post was really interesting! I remember having a very difficult time completing assignments in high school if I had a bad game earlier that day or even that week. Therefore, I can relate to how negative emotions negatively affect working memory. It would make sense that being in a negative mood and obsessing over a negative topic, even if we are not completely aware of it, would cause our working memory performance to decline because our memory system has a limited capacity. Therefore, if we are using cognitive resources to remember a negative topic, there is less available capacity in our working memory to focus on what we are doing at the time. That would cause our working memory performance to decline, as was seen in the results. As I read, I wondered how much worse working memory performance was for positive valances than for neutral valences. From experience, I also know that being in a really good mood can make it hard to focus on working. I would imagine that remembering positive images and feelings would tax cognitive resources as well, therefore decreasing the available capacity in working memory.

    As I was reading this post, I also thought about encoding-retrieval interactions, specifically mood-dependent effects, in terms of long-term memory retrieval. Mood-dependent effects show that one’s memory is better when his or her mood at the time of encoding matches his or her mood at the time of retrieval. Although these effects refer to long-term memory, as I read I wondered if these effects could also apply to working memory. For example, I wondered if the participant was in a bad mood at the time of the study, if he or she would be faster to respond correctly “same” or “different” to negative valences and if he or she would be more accurate in those responses. In other words, if the participant was in a bad mood, would he or she show less of a time increase and accuracy decrease for negative valences than was the average in the study?

  3. ruhe
    December 9th, 2015 at 23:02 | #3

    After reading this post I found out some deeper reasons for why I might perform not so good when facing multiple test on one day: I am worried about not performing well on the previous tests. This negative emotion might influence my performance on the later tests since bad emotion diminishes our respond accuracy and prolongs our reaction speed to tasks. I remember in class we talked about one of the component of working memory is episodic buffer, which integrates with representations from our long term memory and pulls information from long term memory for processing. When we have a negative emotion, it’s usually difficult to forget because we can’t help thinking about it again and again. This emotion or the cause of the emotion therefore can be stored in our long term memory for a long time. It’s possible that the episodic buffer takes the negative emotion stored in the long term memory and used up some capacity of our working memory.
    I am also curious how positive emotion can influence our working memory because I think people keep thinking about good incidents as well. Why this emotion can actually influence our performance positively. I guess one of the reasons might be that people have more motivation for the next works they would face. However I also guess some people may become overconfident if they hear something good happen, so it’s good if we can always stay neutral and minimize the effects of incidents happening around us.

  4. December 10th, 2015 at 01:14 | #4

    This post reminded me of one of the Seven Sins of Memory—persistence, how things we might not want to remember are constantly recalled. As much as we might want to forget an overtime loss, the sin of persistence keeps it on our mind. Also, because we really don’t want to be thinking about it, we may engage in thought suppression, which actually has the opposite of the intended effect and may lead us to rumination.

    This also got me thinking about encoding specificity, specifically mood dependent effects, where matches in emotions between encoding and testing can increase memory. If the task were to become emotionally charged (instead of just deciding if the images were the same, participants had to make an emotional decision) would a match to the image valence have an effect? Would negative valence of image with negative decision result in a faster RT than the results with a negatively valenced image using the task in this experiment? This is similar to Nathan’s comment but instead of thinking about the match of participant mood and image like Nathan, I thought about a match between image and decision. Good point Nathan! I like your idea because it expands on the study instead of changing it.

    In thinking about how changing the decision (were image 1 and 2 the same or different?) might change the results I was reminded of me of some of the aspects of my post. In the study I wrote about participants who had adverse childhoods outperformed those who didn’t on shifting tasks, as shifting is an important skill to have when living in an adverse environment (. This got me thinking about the importance of processing speed, efficiency, and ability in stressful situations. Could our working memory overcome this effect of images with a negative valence if the situation/ decision were more critical? Would this force our working memory to push out thoughts on the OT loss and instead focus on the dire situation at hand?

  5. December 10th, 2015 at 01:16 | #5

    @Hannah Piersiak

    Here’s the citation for the paper I wrote about (Mittal, Griskevicius, Simpson, Sung, and Young 2015).

  6. December 10th, 2015 at 16:33 | #6

    This article speaks to me in so many different way. Firstly, there is underperformance when agitated. I am a worrier, I spend so much time thinking about things that I might have done wrong during my interactions with people, in my classes, or any little thing that might not have gone the way I wanted it to. I plan things to the T and as a result, when something goes wrong I keep replaying the situation in my head in order to find out where I went wrong. I have been that person who could not do work because my mind has been occupied by past events.
    When it comes to our negative experiences having a more lasting impact on our memory, I believe it is in many of our cognitive processes. I think a similar occurrence is observed when we have nightmares after watching a scary movie, or phantom limb syndrome. Negative experiences do seem to stay more vividly and take up significant amount of space in our memory storage.
    However, knowing that our memory is relatively malleable and that our seven sins of memory can act as a shield to protect our minds from going insane is actually very comforting.
    Based on my knowledge of cognitive processes from class, I think attention might play a big role in the observe correlation between negative emotion and efficiency of working memory. Considering the fact it take longer to process stimuli with negative valence, one can speculate that this type of stimulus is attended to for a much longer period of time and therefore creates stronger mental traces. Moreover, when processing information that evokes negative emotions, we tend to be less accurate in our mental representation of the information being processed. Consequently, it makes sense that recall of negative stimuli would be less accurate compared to more positive or neutral stimuli. In all, the cognitive processing information with negative emotional valence might be more cognitively taxing than the processing of more neutral to positive stimuli. This begs the question of whether the processing of stimuli with negative emotional valence is more controlled than the processing of neutral events, or not . . .

  7. December 10th, 2015 at 17:12 | #7

    This article is very relevant and makes a lot of sense to me. I know for me, when I’m upset or have something negative on my mind, I can’t focus on anything else. Doing homework is nearly impossible. I find it really interesting how you said we only have one working memory, which means we can’t process multiple thoughts at once. This makes me think of the way working memory relates to attention, and further, multitasking. In class, we discussed the dangers of texting while driving, because attention is divided. I think this relates to the fact that we can’t process multiple thoughts at once; our working memory cannot be divided (or it is less effective when divided).

    We also looked at the Bottleneck Effect, by Broadbent(1958). This study showed that attention is subjective, and we are more likely to attend to some information than other information due to context, expectations, biases, and so on. We have a threshold for what we choose to attend to, and some things, things that are personally/contextually relevant, we are more likely to attend to. I think this relates to working memory in that when something negative is on our mind, we can’t help but think about it, even when we know we have other important things to do like homework, or studying for a test. We can’t always control what we choose to attend to, like in the way we can’t always choose what our working memory processes.

    I think this post/study is really interesting because if we could control our working memory, and focus our attention on what we need to/want to rather than that nagging thing we can’t get out of our mind, life would be good, and I (we) would be way more productive.

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