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Chapter: Psychology: Prologue: What Is Psychology?

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The Cultural Setting of Emotional Memory

The Cultural Setting of Emotional Memory
Thus we’ve seen that emotional memories—like all memories—can be shaped by the process of telling and retelling, and this process depends in important ways on the social situation.

The Cultural Setting of Emotional Memory

Thus we’ve seen that emotional memories—like all memories—can be shaped by the process of telling and retelling, and this process depends in important ways on the social situation. We’re likely to recall a memory differently if talking with a friend as opposed to a police officer; we’re likely to recall a memory differently if talking with a child as opposed to an adult. And, in each situation, the style of telling we adopt is likely to influence how we remember the original event later on.

Similarly, the way an emotional event is recalled, and the way the event is remem-bered, can be shaped by the culture a person lives in. For example, in some Asian cul-tures, it is considered inappropriate for people to display strong emotion in public (Figure P.11). This social convention shapes how people relate their emotional experi-ences to others, which in turn shapes the way they remember these experiences. In most Western cultures, on the other hand, displays of emotion are common; women in par-ticular are often encouraged to “share their feelings.” This convention, too, shapes how events are described—and thus how they are remembered.


These differences from one culture to the next can have a powerful effect on how people think about the past. For example, we’ve already mentioned the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the vivid memories that most Americans (and many outside of the United States) have of these events. As we discussed, some aspects of these memories may be mistakenincluding the details that individuals recall about when and how they heard the news and how they reacted. Even so, these memo-ries powerfully influence the way Americans think about the threat of terrorism and the politics of the Middle East. In these ways, the memo-ries help shape the culture.

The reverse, however, is also true: Our shared culture shapes what we remember. In America, daily news reports often contain reminders of September 11—specific men-tions of the attacks, comments about the threat of terrorism, and so on. Television shows and movies often contain references to the attacks. These (and other) reminders—all part of our cultural surrounding—virtually guarantee that the attacks will be frequent in people’s thoughts and remain prominent in their memories.

Other examples are easy to find, and shared memories of important episodes are transmitted from generation to generation in many countries. For example, the vio-lence in the Balkans, the Middle East, or Somalia is fueled by deeply rooted hostility between different ethnic or religious groups. The hostilities in turn are often justified on the basis of long-past events that one side of the conflict perceives as horrific offenses or deep injustices and the other side views as benign or legitimate. In each case, the cultural surround contains frequent references to these events, guaranteeing that the events—no matter how long ago they occurred—remain fresh in each per-son’s memory and continue to guide their thinking about these horrible conflicts.

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