Autobiographical memory specificity and affect regulation: coping with a negative life event.
Hermans D., de Decker A., de Peuter S., Raes F., Eelen P., Williams JMG.
Two decades of research have shown that depressed patients experience significant difficulties retrieving specific autobiographical memories. Importantly, reduced autobiographical memory (AM) specificity is a known vulnerability factor for depression and is predictive of a more chronic course. One of the models that has been put forward to explain the origin of this reduced specificity is the affect-regulation model, which assumes that being less specific might help to prevent negative or painful emotions by recalling events in a less specific way. This avoidant memory style might have beneficial effects in the short run (less emotional impact of stressful events) but is detrimental in the long run. The affect-regulation model, and more in particular the beneficial short-term effect of reduced memory specificity, was investigated in a prospective study. Students were followed over a period of 9 weeks after they failed at their first exams at university. In line with the affect-regulation model, memory specificity predicted the course of symptoms that were experienced as a result of failing these exams. The less specific the student, the less durable the emotional distress over this 9-week period. The correlational nature of this study limits to some extent the conclusions that can be drawn. The results offer support for the affect-regulation account of reduced autobiographical memory specificity.