12/10/2011 11:25 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2012

Positive Memories Sustain Us

Emotional events are memorable. If I talk to people from my parent's generation, they can all tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, even though this happened almost 50 years ago. For my generation, the day of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger as well as the attacks on 9/11 have the same force and vividness in memory.

All of this would make it seem as though negative events are particularly memorable. And, of course, there is some reason to want to remember negative things that happened in detail. In the 1970s, motivated by people's memories of the Kennedy assassination, Roger Brown and James Kulik suggested that it was valuable to remember surprising negative events because that information would be useful for planning in the future.

But, what about positive events? It has generally been difficult to study positive events, because there are few public events that are strongly positive. Most of what is reported in the news is negative. Public events are important, because that is the easiest way to determine that people's memories for the original event are accurate.

A nice paper in the Nov. 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Carolyn Breslin and Martin Safer used baseball playoff victories as events. This domain has the advantage that the event is positive for fans of the team that wins the game, a negative event for fans of the team that loses, and has very little emotional force for people who are not fans of either team.

The events that were tested involved the decisive games of the 2003 and 2004 American League Championship Series. In both series, the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox. In 2003, the Yankees won and in 2004 the Red Sox won.

Participants were fans of the Yankees or fans of the Red Sox. (As anyone who follows baseball knows, it is impossible to be a fan of both teams.) A third group of baseball fans who didn't like either team was also recruited. Participants answered a number of factual questions about each game as well as a number of questions about how often they talked about the games after they were over.

As you might expect, people who were not fans of either the Yankees or the Red Sox did not remember much about the game. Yankees fans remembered much more detail about the 2003 series that the Yankees won than about the 2004 series that the Red Sox won. In contrast, Red Sox fans remembered more about the 2004 series than about the 2003 series.

An important reason for this difference is that fans tended to spend more time talking about and thinking about the game their team won than about the game their team lost.

One way that we help to keep ourselves in a good mood is to focus on positive events. A positive event like the victory of a sports team is one that we can share with friends and family. So, we spend time talking about it and savoring it. As a result, it becomes more firmly implanted in our memories than negative events.

There are two things to say about this.

First, it can be a real benefit to well-being to share positive events with friends and family. As we enter the holiday season, focus on positive things that have happened recently, and enjoy the parties and family meals. You will carry those memories around with you for a long time.

Second, the bias to focus on positive events can backfire in business and political contexts. We all like to savor our successes and our victories. But, our failures are often the things that we learn from most. By analyzing our failures, we can learn for the future and find more effective ways to plan. So when you're in a position where you have to prepare for future events, make sure that you spend time focusing on negative events and obstacles. It may not feel good at the time, but it will help put you in a position to succeed in the future.