In Brief

Healthy people remedy bad moods by accessing positive personal memories. But people with dysphoria--chronic, low-level depression--don't appear to benefit from this mood-repair technique, suggests new research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Vol. 113, No. 2).

Jutta Joormann, PhD, a psychology professor at Berlin's Ruhr University and visiting scholar at Stanford University, and Matthias Siemer, PhD, psychology professor at Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University in Greifswald, Germany, studied 60 undergraduate students, half of whom had been identified as dysphoric. Participants first watched a sad-mood inducing, 10-minute film clip of a college student committing suicide, taken from "Dead Poet's Society."

They then attempted to recall positive and negative autobiographical memories at the prompting of a computer, pressing a key once they had one in mind. For example, one positive prompt asked the students to remember "a nice birthday party," while the computer cued a negative memory with the phrase "a broken promise."

Nondysphoric participants quickly summoned up happy memories after watching the sad movie--taking only 2.6 seconds on average. Dysphoric students required about 3.25 seconds to report a positive memory. Additionally, nondysphoric participants were able to remember happy memories a few tenths of a second more quickly than sad ones.

"This might explain part of why dysphoric people, once they get in a negative mood, they don't get out of it," posits Joormann.

A follow-up study by the researchers offers a possible explanation why. In it, Joormann and her colleagues again induced a sad mood, then asked dysphoric and nondysphoric students either to write down the details of happy memories from high school or distract themselves by recording the details of a familiar grocery store. While both tasks resulted in an improved mood for the nondysphoric participants, only the distraction task lifted the spirits of those with dysphoria.

"The implication for treatment is that if you ask dysphoric people to recall nice events from their lives it may not make them feel any better," Joormann notes.