So you’re having fun at a party, and you see a cute possibility across the room. The next day, you remember precisely what that person looks like. But you just can’t remember the name — which is frustrating, since there’s no way to Facebook your potential future spouse. Why the memory lapse?
It turns out there’s a reason for the discrepancy in recall — why you can remember an attractive face but not necessarily the Twitter handle or cell number associated with it. The short answer — published not long ago in a paper in the journal Cognition and Emotion — is that when you’re in a good mood, your ability to remember discrete digits is impaired. But other types of memory — for instance, how her eyes were so much prettier than those of her friend’s — don’t seem to be affected.
The paper, authored by University of Missouri psychologists Elizabeth Martin and John Kerns, tested more than 300 participants in two studies. In the first, 181 college students were randomly divided into two groups. One group watched a 1998 video of Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes about Halloween and the Olympics. The other group had to watch a video about how to install flooring. (If you have intractable insomnia, you can try downloading it here.)
Both groups were then given a test called the Running Memory Span (RMS) task. The RMS test asks participants to recall the final six digits from a list of 12 to 20. The participants hear the numbers on headphones at a rate of four per second.
The group that watched the Seinfeld video scored significantly higher than the other group did on a questionnaire that reliably measures good mood. But they scored significantly worse on the RMS task. Why? For the same reason that when you’re listening to your new favorite album in the kitchen, you forget how many cups of flour you already put in the cookie dough. And if you ask your kid while he’s playing his favorite video game to call you at 5 p.m., don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from him until 6 (or not at all). Happiness is the enemy of recollection.
But that’s only half the story. The Missouri researchers conducted a second experiment with 104 students. These participants were asked to complete the Eriksen flanker task, a famous test you can complete here. In that task, participants are required to identify a letter or symbol in the center of a random assortment of other letters or symbols. (The flanking letters or symbols are called, predictably, flankers.) For example, you might be shown the string 8766325. You would be required to enter the digit 6 to get a correct score. The faster you get the right answer in a series such strings, the higher you score overall.
The Missouri team found that those in a good mood — the students who watched Seinfeld — were no worse at completing the flanker task than those who watched the boring video. In other words, being happy doesn’t interfere with the ability to concentrate on an image central to one’s attention. The implication here is that even if you’re encircled by friends, hearing your favorite song and enjoying a nice beverage, you have no trouble filtering out other people in order to hone in on the one you like.
The Missouri research helps explain why meeting new people at a party can be so exasperating: you know exactly who looks attractive, but once you meet that person, you can’t quite remember his or her particular four-one-ones. (Previous research has found the opposite: if you are asked to write about a negative event in your life, you are more likely to do well at working-memory tasks.)
The research does comport with common sense: if you’re not distracted by a happy event, you have a greater cognitive capacity to remember specific details. The practical implications here are simple: when going to a party, never forget your phone. When you talk to those tantalizing potential mates, be sure to input their digits before saying good night.
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