Working Memory Role in Emotional Regulation

When the going gets negative, recruit working memory — ScienceDaily — November 21, 2016

Working memory, the ability to process information, may play an important role in coping with negative life events, according to a new study by Dr. Tracy Alloway, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida.

“There is a growing body of research supporting the role of working memory in emotional regulation.”

We know that

  1. those with clinical depression have difficulties in suppressing irrelevant negative information, while
  2. those with high working memory are able to ignore negative emotions.  

But we wanted to investigate whether you see a similar pattern in healthy adults across the lifespan,

The research duo tested over 2,000 nonclinical volunteers, between the ages of 16 and 79 years from a wide demographic range.

They were asked questions, like ‘I think about how sad I feel.’

Participants also responded to questions about their dispositional optimism to find out whether they were

  1. typically more optimistic, believing in positive future outcomes or
  2. typically more pessimistic, holding to a more fatalistic outcome.

There were three main findings.

#1 – One is age is a major predictor in determining how pessimistic we are. Younger individuals (late teens and 20s) had higher pessimism scores compared to their older peers. Almost 20 percent of individual differences in pessimistic outlooks was explained by age

#2 – Another finding was a pessimistic outlook predicts depression

This is absurdly obvious: the term “depression” already refers to having a pessimistic outlook.

Almost 85 percent of those who reported feeling depressed had negative views about the future.

I doubt very much that it’s possible to have anything but a negative view of the future when feeling depressed.

They believed that “If something can go wrong for me, it will” and “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”

#3 – A strong working memory can refocus attention on a positive outcome was the third finding in this research.

Working memory predicted the participants’ dispositional optimism. A strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook and focus on an optimistic perspective.

This is the “meat of the matter”, but is never explained or even described.

The results showed that dispositional optimism determines our outlook and whether we succumb to depressive symptoms.

Again, the obvious. The correlations they find are part of the definition of the terms they use. The term “dispositional optimism” already refers to someone who rarely succumbs to depression.

Participants who were more pessimistic, believing that “If something can go wrong for me,” reported feeling more depressed.

According to the negativity bias, the default mode is to focus attention on negative stimuli because it’s linked to survival.

For example, when there are competing stimuli of a snake and a flower on the ground, one attends to the snake, rather than the flower, in order to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation

“A strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook,” she said. “This is good news, especially for younger individuals (teens and those in their 20s), who had higher pessimism scores compared to their older peers.

Again, the premise about working memory countering a pessimistic outlook is stated without any elaboration.

Journal Reference:
Tracy Packiam Alloway, John C. Horton. Does Working Memory Mediate the Link Between Dispositional Optimism and Depressive Symptoms? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1002/acp.3272  


The aim of this study was to explore the interplay between working memory (WM), dispositional optimism, and depressive symptoms in participants across a wide age band (16–79 years) in a nonclinical sample using a computer-based interface.

We administered tests of visuospatial WM (processing and recall), dispositional optimism (optimism and pessimism), and self-reported depression.

There were two main findings:

1) both optimism and pessimism were independent predictors of a self-rated depression score;

2) WM recall scores predicted both optimism and pessimism.

The findings suggest the following pattern:

according to the negativity bias, a pessimistic outlook presents as a strong stimulus for attentional allocation [due to survival instinct], which results in depression.

However, a strong WM can counter this pattern, as individuals can allocate attention to the weaker stimulus, which is an optimistic outlook.

It seems they are really talking about a kind of “mental strength” here, but they never explain how having “stronger” working memory (what does that even mean?) could counter a negative stimulus better than a “weak” memory. Nor do they mention how a “strong” memory is determined.

There’s an interesting point buried in all this obvious claptrap: because chronic pain degrades working memory, this could be the reason pain patients often have trouble with emotional regulation.

I’ve certainly noticed this in myself.

The more years/decades that my pain persists, the worse my memory gets because my brain is constantly interrupted by pain signals. This, in turn, could explain my increasing emotional oversensitivity, which can make my life much more difficult that it needs to be.


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