Successful execution of intentions, but also the failure to recall are common phenomena in everyday life. The planning, retention, and realization of intentions are often framed as the scientific concept of prospective memory. The current study aimed to examine the influence of acute stress on key dimensions of complex “real life” prospective memory. To this end, we applied a prospective memory task that involved the planning, retention, and performance of intentions during a fictional holiday week. Forty healthy males participated in the study. Half of the subjects were stressed with the Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT) before the planning of intentions, and the other half of the participants underwent a control procedure at the same time. Salivary cortisol was used to measure the effectiveness of the SECPT stress induction. Stressed participants did not differ from controls in planning accuracy. However, when we compared stressed participants with controls during prospective memory retrieval, we found statistically significant differences in PM across the performance phase. Participants treated with the SECPT procedure before the planning phase showed improved prospective memory retrieval over time, while performance of controls declined. Particularly, there was a significant difference between the stress and control group for the last two days of the holiday week. Interestingly, control participants showed significantly better performance for early than later learned items, which could be an indicator of a primacy effect. This differential effect of stress on performance was also found in time- and event-dependent prospective memory.
Our results demonstrate for the first time, that acute stress induced before the planning phase may improve prospective memory over the time course of the performance phase in time- and event-dependent prospective memory. Our data thus indicate that prospective memory can be enhanced by acute stress.