Memory better in bad weather: research

Tuesday, 14 April, 2009
Bob Beale

There's an upside to feeling down when the weather is gloomy: your memory is far more accurate than it is on bright and sunny days, an intriguing new study suggests.

Researchers from the UNSW School of Psychology made the surprise finding in an unobtrusive study carried out in a suburban newsagency in Sydney, Australia.

The results, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, point to a growing body of evidence that the way people think, the quality of their judgements and the accuracy of their memory are all significantly influenced by positive and negative moods, says the team leader, Scientia Professor Joe Forgas.

"It seems counter-intuitive but a little bit of sadness turns out to be a good thing," Professor Forgas says.

"People performed much better on our memory test when the weather was unpleasant and they were in a slightly negative mood. On bright sunny days, when they were more likely to be happy and carefree, they flunked it."

With the cooperation of the shop's owners, the researchers randomly placed 10 small ornamental objects on the check-out counter. They included plastic animal figures, a toy cannon, a pink savings pig and four small matchbox-sized vehicles, including a red London bus and a tractor.

On rainy, cloudy days, the researchers arranged for sad music to be played in the store and on bright sunny days customers heard happy music: this was done to further influence them towards negative or positive moods.

Customers were then approached after they had completed their purchase and asked how many of the objects they could remember seeing.

Customers on rainy, cloudy days could list three times as many objects as those on sunny days. More importantly, the negative group's recall was far more accurate as well.

The study involved 73 people and was carried out on 14 different days over a two-month period, at the same times of the day (11 am to 4 pm) and using the same check-out clerk, in order to control for possible confounding factors such as shop crowding, the clerk's personality and behaviour, and other random variables.

"More and more evidence from experiments like this is showing that mild, fleeting moods can have a profound yet subconscious influence on how people think and deal with information," says Professor Forgas.

"Being happy tends to promote a thinking style that is less focused on our surroundings. In a positive mood we are more likely to make more snap judgments about people we meet. We are more forgetful and yet we are paradoxically far more likely to be over-confident that our recall is correct.

"Mild negative mood, in turn, tends to increase attention to our surroundings and produce a more careful, thorough thinking style".

"Accurately remembering mundane, everyday scenes is a difficult and demanding task, yet such memories can be of crucial importance in everyday life, as well as in forensic and legal practice.

"Surprisingly, the influence of mood states on the accuracy of real-life memories is still poorly understood."

Media contacts:

Professor Forgas

UNSW Faculty of Science:  Bob Beale - 0411 705 435