When We Cook Up a Memory, Experience Is Just One Ingredient

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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 26, 2008

People hate Mondays. And they love Fridays.

The Carpenters crooned about being blue in "Rainy Days and Mondays." The restaurant chain T.G.I. Friday's might restrict its clientele to workaholics if it were to rename itself T.G.I. Monday's.

Just in time for Memorial Day, however, new research shows that people's beliefs about being in a better mood at the end of the week than at the beginning is really just a bias in the way human memory works. In reality, people's moods do not change dramatically over the course of the week, and people are not vastly happier on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings than they are on Mondays.

"Stereotypes like 'Monday morning blues' and 'TGIF -- Thank God It's Friday' are largely inaccurate theories of how moods vary" day by day, University of Sydney marketing professor Charles Areni noted in a paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. "In short, Mondays are not actually blue, but people persist in the belief that they are."

The reason lies in the difference between people's actual moods on any given day and how they remember them later, and it reflects the difference between two different mental processes. Memory is partly about recollection and partly about the meanings we associate with events. Fridays mean liberation from the chores of the workweek, and Mondays mean putting on the yoke again. Those meanings influence our recollections of our moods: When a conflict arises between meaning and memory, meaning usually wins.

The effects of this bias turn out to be surprisingly varied. They influence, for example, whether people think of Memorial Day as a somber day of reflection about the nation's war dead or a cheery day when they fire up the grill and welcome the start of summer. Same day, different meanings.

Areni's research suggests that if you were to ask people at the end of this week how they felt today, those who saw Memorial Day as a somber occasion would remember their moods as somber, while those who think of Memorial Day as the start of summer would remember it in more cheery tones. This will be true even if the somber people generally have a good time today and the summer people have a lousy time.

One reason memories are so susceptible to the meaning and interpretation we give them is that many events evoke different feelings, and we find it difficult to recollect mixed emotions, said Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"If I ask you how you felt after you got married, people will give you a very different response than they give you when they are actually getting married," she said.

Where your wedding day may have really been a stress-filled nightmare of fractious in-laws, botched logistics and torrential rain, your memory might produce an altogether rosier picture because, in your mind, wedding days are firmly associated with happiness.

Or think about a visit to Disneyland, Aaker said. People there will experience different moods depending on whether they are waiting in line for an hour to get on a ride or enjoying the ride afterward.

"In the case of Disneyland, you really only remember the happy memories because the cultural meaning of Disneyland is being happy," Aaker said. "It is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth. The second most powerful thing is photos -- you take pictures of smiling kids with Mickey Mouse and not crying kids with Mickey Mouse. The ability of pictures to color your memory is really significant."

The tension between recollection and meaning came into conflict recently with the controversy over a memorial statue to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that is to be installed on the National Mall. When the original design featured a stern-faced King with crossed arms, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts complained that it evoked the wrong image. Disputes broke out about whether King was a stern-faced confrontationist or an uplifting visionary, and advocates for each view produced images of King that they said best represented the civil rights leader's life. Since King's life abundantly reveals many different facets, the choice is not really about which recollection is most accurate but rather about which aspect of King's life we want to remember.

Aaker's work suggests that whatever expression is chosen for the memorial, it is likely to mold how we remember King in the future.

The conflict between memory and meaning may even rear its head in the ongoing presidential race: The psychological research suggests that as conflicted as Democrats feel about the long nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they are likely to come away with one dominant memory of it in hindsight.

Come October, will Democrats remember the pride they felt at having had two extraordinary candidates, or the bitterness that has marked some of the race? Aaker said the way the race ends is likely to play a large role in shaping Democrats' collective memory, because when an experience evokes mixed emotions, the way it ends can powerfully shape how we remember it as a whole.

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