The Fading Affect Bias: An Example of the Constructive Nature of Memory

Last semester, I assisted one of my professors on some research that he and some colleagues were conducting on the fading affect bias—a phenomenon associated with memory and emotions. When I was previewing Chapter 8 of the text and the Lesson 9 commentary, I was excited to see that there were sections that talked about memory and emotions. I thought for sure that these sections would mention the fading affect bias, but they did not. Nonetheless, some of the concepts discussed in Chapter 8 and Lesson 9 got me thinking about what causes the fading affect bias, which is particularly interesting for me because that was the purpose of the research I assisted on. Specifically, the concept of constructive memory offered some valuable insights into why the fading affect bias occurs. That is the focus of this discussion, but first a definition of the fading affect bias.

The fading affect bias is the tendency for the affect associated with negative autobiographical memories to fade faster than the affect associated with positive autobiographical memories (Walker & Skowronski, 2009). The fading affect bias is a robust effect that has been demonstrated in numerous studies (for a review see Walker & Skowronski, 2009). The research I assisted on took the fading affect bias a step further, and examined why some negative memories not only fade but become funny over time. We built upon previous research by Jessica Hartnett and John Skowronski (2013) which examined how humor styles and the use of humor as a coping mechanism were related to this phenomenon.

Participants were asked to share an autobiographical memory that was sad at the time it occurred but was funny now at recall. What we found was that those who scored higher in coping humor reported a higher mean difference between the emotions associated with the event at occurrence and the emotions associated with the event at recall than those who scored lower in coping humor. The conclusion that was drawn was that individuals that use humor to cope disclose their negative experiences more often, thus intensifying the fading affect bias. A similar finding by Hartnett Skowronski (2013) showed that affiliative humor style—a relationship enhancing humor style characterized by the frequent telling of stories, jokes, etc.—was related to “sad then-funny now” experiences. The fading affect bias has been shown to increase due to frequent disclosure of autobiographical memories in other studies as well (Walker & Skowronski, 2009). An obvious question that would follow these findings would be “Why does frequent disclosure increase the fading of negative affect associated with autobiographical memories?” That is where the constructive nature of memory might come into play.

When we recall memories we do not recall the memory exactly as it was. Our recollections are based on the actual memory as well as our knowledge, expectations, and experiences (Goldstein, 2011). Our memories are not actually exact recollections of the events that we are recalling. They are reconstructed each time we recall them. Each recollection, therefore, is building upon a slightly inaccurate version on the actual event that transpired. This is known as the constructive nature of memory. This may provide a partial explanation to the fading affect bias. If the emotions associated with events fade over time, it may be because each recollection of the event is altered; therefore the event that caused the original emotion is not remembered exactly as it first took place. As a result the same level of emotion is never fully restored, and as more recollections result in more altered version of the memory, so too does the emotion become altered.



Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hartnett, J. L., & Skowronski, J. J. (2008). Tragic to hilarious: Why do some negative autobiographical memories become funny? Presented at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL, May 2008. Power Point obtained from Dr. Cory R. Scherer, Penn State Schuylkill.

Walker, W. R., & Skowronski, J, J. (2009). The fading affect bias: But what the hell is it for? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 1122-1136. doi: 10.1002/acp.1614

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