Memory for Emotionally Arousing Items: Context Preexposure Enhances Subsequent Context–Item Binding

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Abstract

Emotionally arousing events are better remembered than neutral events. Not all components of these events, however, are equally well remembered and bound in memory. Although arousal enhances memory for central information, it tends to impair memory for peripheral details, referred to as central/peripheral trade-off. Therefore, people often have difficulties remembering which emotional stimuli were encountered in which contexts. The present study asked whether such context–item binding could be enhanced when individuals are familiarized with context images that later serve as background cues for emotionally arousing stimuli. Familiarization allows for context encoding prior to the encounter of emotionally arousing stimuli. Thus, only few attentional or cognitive resources may be required for context encoding when the arousing stimuli are presented, which might then allow for more efficient context–item binding. In line with this hypothesis, we show that context–item binding significantly improved under these conditions for emotionally negative stimuli. Our results suggest that context familiarity promotes context–item binding for emotional events.

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