Summary: Researchers report a strong working memory can counter a pessimistic outlook.

Source: University of North Florida.

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.

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, is one of the first to look at the role of working memory in the context of depression and dispositional optimism.

“There is a growing body of research supporting the role of working memory in emotional regulation. We know that those with clinical depression have difficulties in suppressing irrelevant negative information, while 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,” said Alloway, who conducted the study with UNF graduate student John Horton.

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

There were three main findings. 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.

Another finding was a pessimistic outlook predicts depression. Almost 85 percent of those who reported feeling depressed had negative views about the future. They believed that “If something can go wrong for me, it will” and “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”

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.

While previous studies have used visual working memory tasks that involve emotional content—happy or sad faces—in this study, working memory was measured using a shape task. The use of stimuli that didn’t involve any emotional content allowed the researchers to disentangle working memory capacity from the emotional content of the stimuli.

The results showed that dispositional optimism determines our outlook and whether we succumb to depressive symptoms. Participants who were more pessimistic, believing that “If something can go wrong for me,” reported feeling more depressed.

“Human behavior is goal-directed and when we face an impediment to achieving a goal, we can respond with either a pessimistic outlook or an optimistic one,” noted Alloway.

Image shows a woman's face.

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.

According to Alloway, a strong working memory can refocus attention on a positive outcome—the results showed that working memory predicted the participants’ dispositional optimism.

“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.”

ABOUT THIS MEMORY RESEARCH ARTICLE

Source: Joanna Norris – University of North Florida
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Does Working Memory Mediate the Link Between Dispositional Optimism and Depressive Symptoms?” by Tracy Packiam Alloway and John C. Horton in Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology. Published online September 21 2016 doi:10.1002/acp.3272

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University of North Florida “Working Memory May Play Tole in Coping With Negaitve Events.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 21 November 2016.
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Abstract

Does Working Memory Mediate the Link Between Dispositional Optimism and Depressive Symptoms?

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, 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.

“Does Working Memory Mediate the Link Between Dispositional Optimism and Depressive Symptoms?” by Tracy Packiam Alloway and John C. Horton in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Published online September 21 2016 doi:10.1002/acp.3272