Forgetting How You Feel

by DavalosMcCormack on November 29, 2010

When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in baseball this Fall the City erupted in an explosion of joy. Not surprising, it had been more than 50 years since the team last won the championship. In fact, they hadn’t won it since moving to San Francisco so this was the City’s first ever taste of baseball glory. Everyone talked about how they wanted to remember every at-bat, every pitch, every strike out so that years from now they could still savor the victory.

But a new study says how we remember things is often very different than how we felt at the time. In fact, we often change our perceptions of how we thought we felt to match how we now feel.

Misremembering Memories

The study, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that people are not very good at predicting how good or how bad they’ll feel after a big event – like a sports tournament – and that afterward they often “misremember” how they felt so it better matches how they feel now.

Distraught sports fans

Here’s how they carried out the study. Before the 2005 Super Bowl football game they asked 19 fans of the Philadelphia Eagles how happy they think they’ll be if their team loses. Then after they did lose they asked them how happy they were and how happy did they think they would be. Before the game the Eagles fans said they’d be devastated if their team lost – but afterward they simply said they were disappointed but also said they always knew they would be OK.

They did the same thing with 73 supporters of Senator John McCain before the 2008 Presidential election – asking how upset they’ll be if Obama wins. Afterward they were asked ‘how upset are you?’ and “how upset did you think you would be?’. The results were pretty much the same as with the football fans. Beforehand they thought Obama’s victory would leave them crushed. Afterward they said they weren’t happy but were ready to move on.

The researchers says we are very adept at shifting our emotions to suit our current situation. We may start out eagerly anticipating an event or dreading it, but afterward – depending on the outcome of the event – we revise what we thought we’d feel to match how we really feel. If we thought we’d feel euphoric after a win and we do win there’s no need to reassess things. But if we thought we’d be deeply depressed by a loss and we do lose, we often go back and adjust what we thought we felt, to match our real mood.

Protecting the brain

It’s a defense mechanism in a way, allowing us to create a sense of real anticipation and drama before an event, and then shrug off the darker emotions we thought we might succumb to if things don’t work out the way we had hoped.

That’s how people in San Francisco survived after the last trip to the World Series in 2002. Needing only one game to clinch the title, and leading by five runs in the 7th inning, people were getting ready to pop the champagne before the team suddenly collapsed, gave up six runs, lost the game and went on to lose the next game and the series.

Fans were distraught after the game, saying they’d jump off the Golden Gate Bridge if they lost. The team did lose but there was no line of folks waiting to hurl themselves off the bridge. It was painful but they shrugged it off.

Eight years later they not only were able to celebrate a great victory, they could look back at the 2002 series and actually appreciate how a defeat like that makes this year’s win all the sweeter. It’s amazing what we can do with our memory, if only we put our mind to it.

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