In Brief

Memory, with all its biases and gaps and other failings, is often a poor friend. On the other hand, the temptation to slip on a pair of rose-colored glasses can sometimes be strong, even if unintended. And then, memory can be a willing accomplice.

When reflecting on their choices, research has shown people often mistakenly attribute only positive details to the option they chose, leaving the less savory features to the one they passed over.

According to a new study, that tendency is especially pronounced among older adults. Younger adults, in contrast, appear to demonstrate less such bias in recall--unless they're prompted to reflect on the emotional aspects of their choices.

In an examination of this choice-supportive memory for decisions, Princeton University psychologists Mara Mather, PhD, and Marcia Johnson, PhD, presented young and older adults with four decisions, between two houses, two job candidates, two airline flights and two potential blind dates. Each option included detailed information--some positive and some negative--to guide participants in their decisions.

Next, participants spent a few moments thinking about how they felt about each decision, reviewing the factual details of each choice or, for participants in a control group, completing an unrelated task. Finally, the researchers asked participants to identify, for all of the decisions, whether each of a series of features referred to the first option, the second option or neither.

Even when overall memory for decisions was equated, older adults were more likely than young adults to assign positive features to the options they had selected and negative details to the options they had not. In addition, younger adults who had reflected on how they felt about their decisions showed a choice-supportive memory bias, but those who had been assigned to the factual-review or control conditions did not.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Psychology and Aging (Vol. 15, No. 4), "suggests that whether people will reconstruct their memory of past choices in an emotionally gratifying fashion can be affected by the type of processing goals that have been activated," the authors write.

"Often when processing information, achieving later memory accuracy is not one's most salient goal. Instead, one may be more focused on emotional dimensions, such as feelings and reactions associated with the event."

Mather and Johnson also speculate that among older adults, feelings may be an important source of information, as ability to undertake complex processing declines.

To support that notion, they cite research among young adults that shows heightened reliance on emotional information as task complexity or time pressure increases. The current findings suggest, the authors conclude, that the increased choice-supportive bias "may be part of a specturm of strategies (both conscious and unconscious) engaged in by older adults to help them regulate emotion."