Though emotions might improve memory-making, the memory of emotions themselves could be especially shaky, researchers say. A case in point: Mothers usually rank spending time with their children as one of the most enjoyable activities of their day. But when researchers asked a group of women to reconstruct what they did on the previous day and recall their emotions, spending time with their children fell to the bottom of the list of enjoyable activities--right between grocery shopping and cleaning the house--according to a study published in Science (Vol. 306, No. 5,702, pages 1,776-1,780).
The discrepancy suggests that people recall emotions by reconstructing and reliving past events; the emotions themselves are not recorded in memory, says study author Norbert Schwartz, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan.
"When you ask people how they feel about child care, they think about fun activities: bedtime stories, going to a movie," he says. "What they miss are the other times: driving to sports events, checking on homework."
Schwartz and his colleagues got around the memory bias by asking 909 women to think of their day as a series of episodes, such as "driving to work," or "lunch with a friend." The participants then described each episode in detail and rated how they felt. By methodically reliving their day, the participants more accurately reconstructed how they felt at the time, says Schwartz.
While women generally say they enjoy taking care of their children, Schwartz and his colleagues found that--when asked on an instance-by-instance basis--women reported enjoying child care less than cooking, exercising and napping.
The discrepancy found by Schwartz and his collaborators may serve a psychological function, says Susan Bluck, PhD, a University of Florida psychology professor.
"What people think of as errors or inaccuracies in memory often serve adaptive ends," says Bluck, who studies emotion and autobiographical memory. "The human race might be in trouble if women generally recalled spending time with their kids as about as much fun as dusting."