“Fuhgeddaboudit” if you can: When remembering may help you forget about a bad date

Have you ever had a day where nothing seemed to go according to plan? Maybe you had a flat tire, were caught in the rain, or maybe even a bad date? The type of day that feels like a page out of Judith Viorst’s, “Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good very bad day”.

Click here for a refresher on what one of those days might entail.

On days like that we all just want to return home, crawl in our beds, and forget that the day even happened. In the famous words of every Italian-American mafia drama, “Forget it about it! (fuhgeddaboudit)”.

The real question becomes, can we truly forget those things we wish to never remember? The issue of directed forgetting (also known as intentional or motivated forgetting) has been a field of inquiry in memory for decades. For example, in some directed-forgetting experiments, people are given a set of items to encode in visual working memory (VWM), followed by a cue that indicates which objects need to be prioritized and stored for a subsequent memory test.

During testing, memory for the un-cued objects is assessed either by asking participants to reproduce those objects or by examining whether a distractor that resembles an un-cued object draws attention (also known as memory-driven attentional capture). For example, imagine that I was instructed to study a picture of an apple and then complete a search task for a horizontal line in a different picture. If I truly forgot the apple, I should not spend more time searching for a horizontal line in pictures containing the apple versus those that do not contain the apple. If I do spend more time, we can assume that the apple in the search task captures my attention, which must be driven by my memory of the apple at study.

The standard finding of directed forgetting is that when people are cued to remember a portion of the information encoded into VWM they forget the un-cued irrelevant information. In other words, forgetting occurs because the limited memory resources that were previously allocated to to-be-forgotten information, is re-assigned to to-be-remembered information. In this way, it appears that remembering some information may be important to distract or take away from other to-be-forgotten information. This may sound a bit concerning for us trying to forget our no-good-very-bad-day completely. The question now is, does directed forgetting only occur in the presence of to-be remembered information? That is, do we need to remember some of the details in order to forget others? Or can we just let go of the whole thing?

In a recent study published in the Psychonomic Society journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Edyta Sasin and colleagues addressed the question of whether directed forgetting can occur in the absence of any to-be-remembered information by determining if the cue to ‘remember’ or to ‘forget’ influences memory-driven attentional capture (the task just described with the apple example).

Sasin and colleagues conducted two experiments in which participants were told to remember both the shape and color of the target object. On a given trial, participants were shown a target shape/color pair followed by a cue to either ‘remember’ or ‘forget’ the target. For example, people might see a red square and be instructed to remember this, followed by a yellow circle that they were asked to forget.

After a brief pause (that varied in length), participants then completed a search task which was designed to assess the memory-driven attentional capture effect for the to-be-forgotten object in a task unrelated to memory. The search task was used as an alternative to a surprise memory recognition question. Surprise recognition questions might bias participants in subsequent trials to remember to-be-forgotten information despite instructions to intentionally forget.

In the search task, participants were asked to denote the orientation of a target line contained in one of four different shapes in the display. Each shape had a line, and three of the lines were completely vertical whereas the target line was tilted either to the right or to the left. The figure below illustrates the task.

There were two types of trials for the search task: invalid and neutral. Invalid trials contained the target shape from study, but never the target line (line with left or right tilt). Neutral trials contained neither the shape nor color of the studied target.

Participants were instructed to complete the search task as quickly and accurately as possible. For a final memory test, which followed the search task, participants were shown a probe shape and had to identify if it was the same as the target (both in shape and color). Importantly, the memory test was administered only if participants saw the ‘remember’ cue.

Performance was assessed via reaction time in the search task. If participants were truly forgetting the to-be-forgotten target, there should be roughly equal reaction times in the neutral search task (where no target features are present) and the invalid search task (where the target is present).

Results showed that this was not the case. Participants were significantly slower on the invalid search trials compared to the neutral trials regardless of the remember/forget cue. This implies that the to-be-forgotten information was not completely eradicated from memory.

However, the capture effect was larger for the remember condition than the forget condition. Also, there was no difference in the memory-driven attentional capture of the to-be-forgotten distractor across the different pause lengths between study and search. This suggests that time did not cause additional decay of the memory for the to-be-forgotten object.

Taken together, the results show that in the absence of to-be-remembered information, representations of to-be-forgotten information in memory are attenuated, but not completely deactivated.

This means that when we try to completely forget the details of our bad day, we may end up recalling some of those details anyway, and that information biases our perception of newly encoded information.

So my advice for intentionally forgetting a bad date or day in general, is to try to remember a few of the good details (e.g., the food at the restaurant), those memories may make you forget all the other details that were less savory.

Featured Psychonomic Society article:

Sasin, E., Morey, C.C., & Nieuwenstein, M. (2017). Forget me if you can: Attentional capture by to-be-remembered and to-be-forgotten visual stimuli. Psychonomic Bulletin, & Review, DOI 10.3758/s13423-016-1225-0.

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