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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Misremembering pain: A memory blindness approach to adding a better end.

  • Author(s): Urban, Emily J
  • Cochran, Kevin J
  • Acevedo, Amanda M
  • Cross, Marie P
  • Pressman, Sarah D
  • Loftus, Elizabeth F
  • et al.

How people remember feeling in the past informs future decisions; however, memory for past emotion is subject to a number of biases. Previous research on choice blindness has shown that people often fail to notice when they are exposed to misinformation about their own decisions, preferences, and memories. This type of misinformation can influence how they later remember past events. In the present study, we examined the memory blindness effect in a new domain: memory for pain. Participants (N = 269) underwent a cold-pressor task and rated how much pain, distress, and positive and negative affect they had experienced. Later, participants were shown their pain ratings and asked to explain them. Some of the participants were shown lower pain ratings than they had actually made. In a second session, participants recalled how painful the task had been and how much distress and positive and negative affect they remembered experiencing. The results indicated that the majority of participants who were exposed to misinformation failed to detect the manipulation, and subsequently remembered the task as being less painful. The participants in the misinformation condition were not overall more willing to repeat the study tasks, but the participants who recalled less distress, less negative affect, and more positive affect were more willing to repeat the study tasks again in a future experiment. These results demonstrate the malleability of memory for painful experiences and that willingness to repeat aversive experiences may depend more on memory for affective reactions to the original experience than on memory for the physical pain itself.

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