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Evidence for the Differential Salience of Disgust and Fear in Episodic Memory

Studies of emotional memory typically focus on the memory-enhancing effects of emotional dimensions such as arousal and valence. However, it is unclear to what extent different emotional categories could have distinct effects on memory over and above these dimensional influences. We tested this possibility by investigating the impact of two negative, highly arousing, and withdrawal-related emotions—disgust and fear—on attention and subsequent memory.

To index differential attention during encoding, participants performed a speeded line discrimination task (LDT) while viewing disgusting and fearful photographs of similar valence and arousal, which were assessed for later memory. LDT performance was slower, and subsequent recall and recognition were greater, for disgusting compared to both fearful and neutral images. Disgust enhancement of memory remained significant even when controlling for attention at encoding and for arousal, visual salience, and conceptual distinctiveness. Receiver-operating curve analyses indicated that disgust enhancement of memory was due to increased sensitivity, rather than response bias. Thus, disgust appears to have a special salience in memory relative to certain other emotions, suggesting that a purely dimensional model of emotional influences on cognition is inadequate to account for their effects. We speculate that disgust enhancement of memory could arise from an origin in conditioned taste aversion, a highly enduring form of implicit memory. (Read More)