Do We Remember Negative Events More Vividly Than Positive Ones?

It seems that for all of the positive experiences we have throughout our lives, we tend to harp on and recall more easily the few negative (failure, sickness, death) memories we’ve had. The old adage of “Don’t dwell on the negative” is almost impossible considering our human nature to do just that. I think that as students we can relate to this concept in an academic way. For instance, if your professor returns your exam and you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, you tend to let that thought linger longer despite getting a near perfect score on the past exams or assignments in the same course. Are people innately negative? What is the mechanism behind why the majority of us obsess over the few negative events?

Ohio State University (OSU) conducted an experiment in 1998 that sought to find a conclusion about negativity bias and how (if at all) it affects our ability to make evaluations. They used 25 OSU male undergraduates for this study. I would classify this as an experime

ntal study because the 25 students were connected to EEGs (machines that measure brain activity) and presented various pictures, of which the subjects gave reactions. The procedure consisted of the students being shown 36 pictures classified as “neutral” (these served as the control photos), two pictures classified as “positive” and two pictures classified as “negative.” It is also worth noting that the positive and negative pictures were extreme in their affects. Meaning that the positive pictures were of children riding a rollercoaster, a bowl of ice-cream, and pizza, whereas the negative photos were of a dead cat and a body of a decaying cow. The combination of pictures (random) was done in groups of five at a time. The electrical impulses of each student were recorded for each picture that was shown on the computer screen. The results of the experiments concluded that although the positive and negative pictures yielded high levels of arousal in comparison to the neutral photos, the negative stimuli produced more arousal in the brains of the subjects. From this study, it can be concluded that negative stimuli have a greater impact on our minds than positive stimuli. It’s important to know that the negative and positive stimuli show up in the same areas of the brain so there is no error coming from the calculating of comparisons between one part of the brain that registers pleasure from another that registers pain/discomfort, etcetera. This study has an equal number of positive and negative photos and so it’s possible that the results could vary if there is an unequal ratio of positive to negative photos. There could be a difference if the subjects were group of co-eds and not just men. And although this study contributes to the argument that negative stimuli is more potent to our brains, it doesn’t explain why.


I found a scientific review which asserts that bad memories and experiences overpower good or pleasant memories and experiences. They give a hypothesis as to why they believe unpleasant memories create more of a lasting impact on the human mind. The scientists stated that human beings dwelling on negative events could be an adaptive behavior. Their reasoning behind this thought is that our ancestors who were more conscious of the dangers in their environment were better equipped to avoid them and thus carry on their genes. They further went on to justify their hypothesis by stating that if a person were to disregard a threatening situation (even just once) it can yield severe harm or possibly death. But, if a person were to ignore signs of positive opportunities will miss out on added reward or satisfaction and be unharmed. I think that this theory could help to explain why our brains (and those in the aforementioned study) have more activity when we so much as see something that is negative (dangerous, repulsive, scary). Being mindful and remembering the “bad” could be an instinctive reaction, a survival tactic, so that we can ensure our vitality.




6 thoughts on “Do We Remember Negative Events More Vividly Than Positive Ones?

  1. Jon Shanfelder

    Neat topic! After reading this I couldn’t help but think about how PTSD is one of the most life-like recalls of memory a person can experience. Like most people you may think only soldiers experience this but in actuality, the number one cause of PTSD ( is car accidents! Car accidents happen every day so your example of me remembering when I get a bad grade on a test instead of a good grade is a great example of an everyday event. I think I would remember a negative PTSD event way more vividly than I would remember a good even such as my high school prom! Now I just wonder if this “survival tactic” will eventually go away since humans have so many safeguards that protect us from things like animals attacks and starvation?

  2. Jessica Heckler

    As someone who overanalyzes everything in life, I can connect a lot to this article. I feel like negative events leave a much bigger impact on us and usually can be remembered for a much longer time than happy events. However, some extremely happy events, like graduation, will be something that I will also always remember, so I wonder if both ends of the spectrum provide us with stronger memories, but negative events are focused on more.
    Another idea that I had about this topic is the connection of emotions to an event, meaning that the stronger your emotions are to an event the stronger the memory will be. Personally, I know my negative emotions can be a lot stronger and less frequent than my positive emotions, so it would make sense for me to more strongly remember the negative events in my life. In my educational psychology class we learned about encoding and learned that the deeper connections you can make to prior knowledge while encoding new information, the stronger the encoding will be and the more likely you will remember it. Using this information, it makes sense that people would remember events with strong emotional ties because it gives them more details to connect to and remember.
    This would be a very hard experiment to conduct because it would be very hard to compare the memories of a positive event and negative event without making it an observational studies, and with observational studies, a lot of confounding variable come into play that could make the results biased.

  3. Mairead Donnard

    This was an interesting blog! This blog caught my eye as I can attest to typically remembering bad memories over good ones. This blog stands as a reminder to try and remember the good times over the bad in order to lead a healthier life. When people remain positive and are happier, they will live a better life and may in turn be in better health. Here is an article by the Mayo Clinic that you may find to be interesting: . It talks about how positive thinking can actually make you healthier.

  4. Jillian Nicole Beitter

    Great blog! I can still remember when I was in fourth grade and I got a 65 on a test. I vividly remember getting the test back. I remember the test so well yet I have no other vivid memories. There were so many great memories in fourth grade, yet I can not remember one of them! They’re pretty much all blended into one memory. Unfortunately, that one bad grade I got will always be something I associate with fourth grade. In this article, it mentions how people who tend to worry a lot have a hard time making a situation positive. I worry a lot, so that explains why I find it hard to find a positive moment of fourth grade. Instead, I go right to the one memory I remember, which is negative. It is hard to train our minds to think positive. We tend to look for the negative in things, which is unfortunate.

  5. Olivia Anne Browne

    Great post, very well thought out and contained a lot of good information. I think in life, bad times are more easily rememberable due to the fact that it came from a place of hurt. Not only do I think that, but I also think good times can be retrieved easily as well, it just depends what state your in at that moment. Your studies are very interesting and this is a very good topic overall. I think as humans, we always need to reflect on the good and the bad times in order to maintain a healthy life.
    Check out this study on positive vs negative memories found in mice.

  6. Michael David Kresovich

    First of all I thought that this blog post was greatly constructed. it was organized very well, and made reading it, a lot easier. I found this article very relatable to me considering I dwell on the past and remember my failures rather than my own successes. I think it is this way with a lot of people because we try to be perfectionist all of the time, instead of being the best possible version of yourself. Trying to be perfect all of the time can just make you more frustrated and make even more mistakes. I think it is the challenge of climbing the hill rather than the top of the hill is more attractive, because it is what you learn in the journey. For this blog post, I found the study at Ohio State to be very interesting.

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