How the way we currently think can affect our memories of love

As our memories dissolve in time, we have no other choice but to rely on our current perception of a person in order to re-capture how we felt about them in the past, and a new study suggests this phenomenon extends to even the most important people in our lives: our parents.

The findings of the research are published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Memories of the love we felt in childhood towards our parents are among the most precious aspects of autobiographical memory we could think of,” says lead author Lawrence Patihis, researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Yet our findings suggest that these memories of love are malleable—which is not something we would want to be true.”

“If you change your evaluation of someone, you will likely also change your memory of your emotions towards them and this is true of memory of love towards mothers in childhood,” he explains.

Patihis and his colleagues Mario E. and Cristobal S. Cruz recruited 301 online participants for their first experiment. Some of them wrote about recent examples of the positive attributes of their mothers, such as showing generosity, warmth, competence, and giving wise guidance, while some others wrote about recent examples of their mothers’ lack of the same attributes. One comparison group’s participants wrote about a teacher and another group received no writing task at all.

Participants filled out a survey to assess what they currently thought about the attributes of their mothers, including generosity and warmth.

They then completed the Memory of Love Towards Parents Questionnaire (MLPQ), which included ten items designed to measure the participants’ love  for their mother as they remembered feeling it at different stages of life (for example, “During the whole year when you were in first grade, how often on average did you feel love toward your mother?” and “During the whole year when you were in first grade, how strong on average was your love toward your mother?”).

In addition, the MLPQ also measured the participants’ current feelings of love for their mother.

Two weeks after the first session, the participants completed the measures again.

Results showed that the writing tasks influenced the subjects’ current feelings and their memories of love.

More specifically, those who were asked to write about their mother’s positive attributes tended to recall more powerful feelings of love for their mother in 1st, 6th, and 9th grade in comparison to those who wrote about their mother’s lack of positive attributes. These effects came up at the 4-week follow-up for 1st grade memories, but not for memories of 6th or 9th grade.

More findings showed that the effects of the writing tasks were not merely the result of changes in people’s mood.

Another experiment replicated the findings with 302 participants. Interestingly, the participants did not make different assessments of their mothers before receiving the writing task, which indicates that the effects of the tasks were not the cause of preexisting differences among those who participated.

Additionally, the findings revealed that participants’ current love feelings for their mothers, as measured at the beginning of the experiment, were wrongly remembered eight weeks after the experiments.

The writing task effects had started to fade by the time the team of researchers conducted an eight-week follow-up after the experiment.

The researchers aim to expand this study to explore if the same effects can emerge for kinds of emotions and target individuals and they’re additionally exploring if the same success in life could similarly alter childhood memories of emotion. The researchers also hope to find out if these effects could influence later behavior.

“The significance of this research lies in the new knowledge that our current evaluations of people can be lowered if we choose to focus on the negative, and this can have a side effect: the diminishing of positive aspects of childhood memories,” adds Patihis. “We wonder if wide-ranging reappraisals of parents— perhaps in life or in therapy—could lead to intergenerational heartache and estrangement. Understanding this subtle type of memory distortion is necessary if we want to prevent it.”

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