June 10, 2019
If “there is no love lost” between you and your mother today, your current relationship actually may distort your recollections of how affectionate she was while you were growing up.
Indeed, as we grow older and our memories fade, we rely on our current assessment of a person to remember how we felt about them in the past, based on findings of research conducted at the University of Southern Mississippi and published by Psych Central. This extends to some of the most central figures in our lives — our parents.
“Memories of the love we felt in childhood toward our parents are among the most precious aspects of autobiographical memory we could think of,” said lead author Dr. Lawrence Patihis, an assistant professor at the university and head of the Memory in Life, Practice, and Law Laboratory there. “Yet our findings suggest that these memories of love are malleable, which is not something we would want to be true.”
For the study’s first experiment, Patihis and coauthors Cristobal S. Cruz and Mario E. Herrera recruited 301 online participants. Some wrote about recent examples of their mother’s positive attributes, such as showing warmth, generosity, competence and giving good guidance. Others wrote about recent examples of their mother’s lack of these attributes. Participants in one comparison group wrote about a teacher and participants in another comparison group received no writing prompt at all.
The participants then completed a questionnaire—the “Memory of Love Towards Parents Questionnaire”—assessing how they currently thought about their mother’s attributes, including her warmth and generosity.
The survey was geared to assess ten measures of love that the respondents could recall experiencing toward their mothers at different ages. Questions included “During the whole year when you were in first grade, how often on average did you feel love toward your mother?” and “During the whole year when you were in first grade, how strong on average was your love toward your mother?”
The MLPQ also measured participants’ current feelings of love for their mothers, according to the researchers. The participants completed the questionnaires again two weeks and four weeks after the initial session.
The results showed that the writing prompts influenced participants’ current feelings and their memories of love. Specifically, participants who were prompted to write about their mother’s positive attributes tended to recall stronger feelings of love for their mother in first, sixth, and ninth grade compared with participants who wrote about their mother’s lack of positive attributes.
The researchers plan to expand this research to explore whether the same effects emerge for other emotions and target individuals. They’re also exploring whether successes in life might similarly alter childhood memories of emotion. In addition, the researchers hope to discover whether these effects might influence later behavior.
“The significance of this research lies in the new knowledge that our current evaluations of people can be lowered if we choose to focus on the negative, and this can have a side effect: The diminishing of positive aspects of childhood memories,” Patihis said. “We wonder if wide-ranging reappraisals of parents, perhaps in life or in therapy, could lead to intergenerational heartache and estrangement. Understanding this subtle type of memory distortion is necessary if we want to prevent it.”
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