Context-Dependent Activation of Reduced Autobiographical Memory Specificity as an Avoidant Coping Style

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Abstract

According to the affect-regulation hypothesis (Williams et al., 2007), reduced autobiographical memory specificity (rAMS) or overgeneral memory (OGM) might be considered a cognitive avoidance strategy; that is, people learn to avoid the emotionally painful consequences associated with the retrieval of specific negative memories. Based on this hypothesis, one would predict significant negative associations between AMS and avoidant coping. However, studies investigating this prediction have led to equivocal results. In the present study we tested a possible explanation for these contradictory findings. It was hypothesized that rAMS (in part) reflects an avoidant coping strategy, which might only become apparent under certain conditions, that is, conditions that signal the possibility of 'danger.' To test this hypothesis, we assessed AMS and behavioral avoidance but experimentally manipulated the instructions. In the neutral condition, two parallel versions of the Autobiographical Memory Test (AMT) were presented under neutral instructions. In the threat condition, the first AMT was presented under neutral instructions, while the second AMT was presented under 'threat instructions.' Results showed no significant correlations between avoidance and OGM under neutral conditions but significant and markedly stronger correlations under threat conditions, with more avoidance being associated with fewer specific and more categoric memories. In addition, high avoiders showed a stronger reduction in AMS in the threat condition as compared with the neutral condition, while low avoiders showed no such difference between conditions. The data confirm that OGM can be considered as part of a broader avoidant coping style. However, more importantly, they show that, at least in nonclinical individuals, the activation of this coping style may depend on the context.

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