Social Influences on Emotional Memory
Memories are also different from videorecords in another way: Once a videorecord is estab-lished (on tape, or on a DVD), it remains in storage, ready for playback. The videorecord may fade, or get erased, but it is unlikely to change in any way. Not so for memories. There are several reasons for this, including the ways that people share their memories with others—a sharing that happens particularly often with memories of emotional events.
Each person’s memory is, of course, their own, and they can keep their recollection private if they wish. But memory also has a social function: We exchange memories to instruct or amuse each other. We exchange memories as a means of creating a social bond—“That’s amazing, because the same thing happened to me!” We report on our past to help other people understand our actions, and perhaps to lead them to like us more, or to gain their trust or respect.
It turns out, though, that this exchange of memories is not just a matter of report-ing. Instead, we often reshape a memory so that it will better serve our social goals. The event as we’ve now described it then becomes woven into (or replaces) the memory we began with. In this way, sharing a memory with others can, in fact, change how we remember the past.
In one study, for example, people viewed a movie clip and then, two days later, were interviewed by the experimenter about the movie. During the interview, the experimenter led participants to describe entire episodes that hadn’t appeared in the movie at all (e.g., a practical joke, played on one of the movie’s main characters). The participants knew they were “describing” nonexistent episodes, reporting on things they hadn’t seen at all. Several weeks later, though, when participants were asked to recall what they had seen in the movie, almost half of them included in their recall the episodes that they had themselves fabricated (Chrobak & Zaragoza, 2008; also see Coman, Manier, & Hirst, 2009; Weldon, 2001). Apparently, the participants’ conversation with the experimenter about the movie changed how they remembered the film’s plot—to the point of adding entire fictitious events.