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Gender and personality impacts how we process negative memories

Heather Rudow April 16, 2012

When reflecting on hard times in your life, do you look back fondly on getting through a difficulty experience, or are you just as upset as the day it occurred? According to University of Illinois researchers, how a person remembers and is affected by negative memories depends on their gender and personality traits.

Researcher Florin Dolcos said that other studies have found that people with high neuroticism tend to become “more disposed to become ill with affective disorders like depression and anxiety-related problems.” But they have not explored the differences between genders, the relationship between positive and negative memories, the frequency with which individuals recall specific memories and the vividness of their memories, as well as the coping strategies involved with recalling said memories. Says Florin, some of these strategies include suppression – trying to hide negative emotions – and reappraisal – putting a positive spin on unpleasant memories when looking back on them:

“The new study examined all these variables, and the findings offer a first hint of the complex interplay of factors that contribute to mood in healthy young men and women. The researchers used questionnaires and verbal cues to assess personality and to elicit more than 100 autobiographical memories in each of 71 participants (38 of them women). Their analysis revealed that both men and women who were high in extroversion (gregarious, assertive, stimulus-seeking) tended to remember more positive than negative life events. Men who were high in neuroticism tended to recall a greater proportion of negative memories than men who were low in neuroticism, while women who were high in neuroticism tended to return to the same negative memories again and again, a process called rumination.”

But the most pronounced difference the researchers found between men and women was regarding the emotional strategies each gender used when recalling negative memories. Men who engaged in reappraisal, were more likely to recall positive memories than their peers, while those who suppressed them saw no pronounced effect on the recall of  either positive or negative memories. However, the suppression of memories in women was significantly associated with not only a recalling of negative memories, but also a lower, depressed mood afterward.

“I think that the most important thing here is that we really need to look concomitantly at sex- and personality-related differences and to acknowledge that these factors have a different impact on the way we record our memories, on what we are doing with our memories, and later, how what we are doing with our memories is impacting our emotional well-being,” said researcher Sanda Dolcos.

According to the findings, she said, being more outgoing, stopping rumination, and using the reappraisal strategy appears to help both genders best deal with reflecting on negative memories.

Source: University of Illinois

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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