Friday, June 4, 2010

Sorry, what's your name again? - How stress impairs our social memory.

Ever felt that someone hasn't been paying attention to what you were saying in previous conversations because he/she forgets biographic information about you that you had mentioned countless times? Well, it turns out that it might just be that they're stressed out by something else.

In their paper, Stress Impairs Retrieval of Socially Relevant Information, Merz, Wolf & Hennig (2010) investigated the hypothesis that parts of our social memory (memory about names, birth dates, parts of other people’s life) fail because of stress.

15 women and 14 men were recruited to take part in an experiment whereby they were randomized into either the Stress or Control conditions. All participants started the experiment by memorizing two biographical notes (one from each gender) which includes photos, home towns and parts of their life stories.

Stress was then induced on the participants in the stress condition by instructing them that they would have to give a public speech 10 minutes later. Cortisol levels in saliva samples collected during 5 different time intervals during the whole experiment were used to quantify their stress levels.

All participants were then tested on the biographical notes that they learnt at the beginning of the experiment. Participants were tested on recognition (selecting the correct answer out of 5 choices), correction (marking the incorrect answer out of 5 choices) and reproduction (answering semi-open ended questions). Global Memory indicates the average of the three tests.

The authors found that participants in the stress condition had significantly lower recognition, reproduction and global memory scores than participants in the control condition.

Mean cortisol response during memory retrieval of responders (participants who show stress induced cortisol increase) also had a significant negative correlation with the recognition task and global memory score.

The authors conclude that acute stress reduces our ability to retrieve socially relevant information and that there was an association between these stress-induced retrieval deficiencies and cortisol response to the stressor.

So, cut that person some slack when he/she forgets something about you; it might just be the cortisol, or even the pressure you're inducing on the person to remember stuff about you!
Merz, C., Wolf, O., & Hennig, J. (2010). Stress impairs retrieval of socially relevant information. Behavioral Neuroscience, 124 (2), 288-293 DOI: 10.1037/a0018942

1 comment:

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