A scene from the 1988 movie "The Land Before Time" was used to gauge sadness in children.
September 10, 2018

Study explores why children remember the same things, differently

Children less able to manage their emotions don't remember details of frightful events

Author: J.D. Warren
September 10, 2018

Children can have completely different memories of the same negative episode, depending on how they regulate their own emotions.

That’s the finding of first-of-its-kind research by a UC Riverside team that looked at the emotion regulation, or ER, processes of children. The study considered how children’s emotion regulation impacts what they remember about their scary and sad experiences.

The research team discovered that, after a scary experience, older children less able to manage their negative emotions remembered central information about the scary event better than peripheral details.

For example, getting a shot at the doctor’s office is a common scary experience for children, so older children with poorer emotion regulation skills remember a lot about the inoculation itself (e.g., the needle, the preparation of the skin before the shot) but fewer surrounding details, such as what the nurse was wearing or the decorations on the wall.

After a sad experience, the researchers found older children with poorer emotion regulation skills remembered more of the central and peripheral details of the event. These findings suggest that different emotions direct our attention to certain kinds of information in the world. And this phenomenon is stronger when children are less able to manage their negative emotions.

“Emotions can influence what we pay attention to, color our memories, and make them less accurate,” said Elizabeth Davis, a UCR assistant professor of psychology who is the principal investigator on the study, and who appears as a co-author on the paper that recently published in the journal Child Development.

“If we can show that regulating emotions circumvents this link, we have a better understanding of differences in children’s skills that enable them to pay attention to and remember certain kinds of information better.”

The study included 184 children, ages 3 to 11. Half were boys, half girls, with varying demographics and races. Complete data were collected for 150 participants.

To measure the tendency to pay more attention to threatening information, children completed a computer game. Throughout the visit, children were asked to point to sad, scared, angry, and happy cartoon faces to report what emotions they felt and how intensely they felt them.  

The children then watched a scene from one of two films, one sad, one scary. The sad movie scene chosen was from “The Land Before Time,” a 1988 animated movie in which a young dinosaur searches for his mother, finds her injured, and talks to her as she dies. The scary movie’s scene was from “The Secret of NIMH,” a 1982 animated movie in which a timid mouse navigates an owl’s dark lair. Most children in the study had never seen either movie.

About 25 minutes after the movie, children were interviewed about what they remembered using a 10-question interview. Five questions asked about information central to the main events (Who is the dinosaur looking for?). Five asked about peripheral details (How many toes does the mom dinosaur have on each foot?).

“We wanted to understand how emotion regulation might work to disrupt the known link between emotion and cognition,” Davis said. The team went into the study with two hypotheses:

  • Children who were less skilled at managing their negative emotions would remember only the most crucial, central aspects of a scary event (and not the details), but would remember both types of information about a sad event..
  • Older children would be better at regulating their emotions and remembering the emotional events.

The hypotheses were supported by the research.

The team found that children’s memories differed for sad and scary information, depending on differences in children’s ability to regulate their emotions.

“You have to account for the kids’ abilities to regulate their emotions when you examine what and how well they remember about something emotional they experienced,” Davis said.

And Davis said sadness promotes analytical thinking, and can increase central and peripheral memory equally. It promotes careful, delayed processing of information that may enhance understanding of the causes and consequences of loss, and more varied memory.

Some mental health problems are associated with biases such as focusing too much on negative information to the exclusion of other information. In the long term, Davis said the research may help identify children who are most at risk for later anxiety and depression, and provide a foundation for intervention.

Davis said the research results lay the groundwork “to understand how emotion regulation processes help kids get rid of unwanted emotions, how these differ when a kid feels sadness versus fear, and the consequences of these skills for how children remember their emotional experiences.”

Authors for the research paper, Intrapersonal Emotion Regulation Processes Influence What Children Remember About Their Emotional Experiences, include Davis and first author Parisa Parsafar, a doctoral candidate in the UCR Department of Psychology.

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