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Alex Fessler, Jason Prenoveau, Ph.D.

Disgust's Effect on True and False Memories in High and Low Trait Anxious College Students

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Mood and memory are closely related psychological processes (Storbeck & Clore, 2005). It has been shown that experiencing affective states during encoding and recognition leads to mood congruent learning, the improved learning of material that has a similar affect to the affective state (Howe & Malone, 2011). Research has shown that positive moods increases false memories of positive words and negative moods decreases false memories and increases true memories of negative words. (Storbeck & Clore, 2005) Disgust is a form of a negative mood, which has not been studied as much as other negative moods (e.g., sadness). Disgust is a common characteristic to contamination-related obsessive compulsive disorder (Olatunji, Williams, Lohr, Connolly, Cisler, & Meunier, 2007), blood-injection-injury phobia (Olatunji, Cisler, McKay & Phillips, 2010)., and small animal phobia (McNally, 2002).These disorders also have a common characteristic of high levels of trait anxiety (Olatunji et al., 2007). A large body of research (Sawchuk, Lohr, Lee, & Tolin, 1999; Olatunji, & McKay, 2006; Olatunji et al., 2007; Olatunji, Cisler, McKay & Phillips, 2010; Cimrova, Riecansky, & Jagla, 2011) has implicated memory processes in the maintenance of each of these clinical problems. However, limited empirical research has examined the effects of disgust on memory processes. A further exploration of disgust’s role in memory processes is needed to understand disgust’s effect on the maintenance of safety-seeking behaviors (Clark, 1999) and biases to disgust related stimuli (Sawchuk, Lohr, Lee, & Tomin, 1999) in individuals with anxiety disorders.

The current study will be conducted to examine the effects of a disgust induction on true memories and false memories for threatening, disgusting, and neutral words. A convenience sample of university undergraduates will be shown three types of words (12 total lists); one-third of which will connote disgust (e.g., insects, illness, & garbage), one-third threat (e.g., war, rape, & robbery), and one-third neutral (e.g., chair, river, & fruit). Individuals will be randomly assigned to a foul odor or a no foul odor in order to manipulate disgust, which will be divided into two non-experimental groups each (high & low trait anxiety). Participants will then be presented with lists of words containing half of the previously presented words (true positive), some connoting the same affect that were not previously presented (critical lures), and lists connoting the same affect that were not previously seen at all (false alarm).

Based on past research, we predict that participants in the odor-high trait anxiety condition will demonstrate better true memory for disgust words and less false memory for disgust critical lures than participants in the no odor-high trait anxiety. We also predict that no odor-high trait anxiety will demonstrate better true memory for disgust words and less false memory for disgust critical lures than participants in the no odor-low trait anxiety and control groups. We anticipate an appreciable difference among the four groups for word type, in that threat words will be better remembered than neutral. Implications for the effect of mood on memory processes for disorders of disgust and anxiety will be discussed. Implications for these potential results include how disgust is used in memory processes to avoid anxiety inducing stimuli by individuals with high trait anxiety (Chapman, Johannes, Poppenk, Moscovitch, & Anderson, 2012). Also that disgust would be better remembered by individuals with high trait anxiety because they view the disgusting stimuli as a threat to their survival (Chapman et al., 2012).


Chapman, H. A., Johannes, K., Poppenk, J. L., Moscovitch, M., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Evidence for the Differential Salience of Disgust and Fear in Episodic Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0030503

Cimrova, B., Riecansky, I., & Jagla, F. (2011). The role of train anxiety in explicit memories of emotional experience. Studia Psychologica, 53, 253-261.

Clark, D. M. (1999). Anxiety disorder: Why they persist and how to treat them. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37, S5-S27. doi:10.1016/S0005-7967(99)00048-0.

Howe, M. L., & Malone, C. (2011). Mood-congruent true and false memory: Effects of depression. Memory, 19, 192-201. doi:10.1080/09658211.2010.544073

Olatunji, B. O., Cisler, J., McKay, D., & Phillips, M. L. (2010). Is disgust associated with psychopathology? Emerging research in the anxiety disorders. Psychiatry Research, 175, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2009.04.007

Olatunji, B. O., & McKay, D. (2006). Further exploration of the role of disgust sensitivity in anxiety and related disorders. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 19, 331-334. doi:10.1080/10615800601055931

Olatunji, B. O., Williams, N. J., Lohr, J. M., Connolly, K. M., Cisler, J., & Meunier, S. A. (2007). Structural differentiation of disgust from trait anxiety in the prediction of specific anxiety disorder symptoms. Behavior Research and Therapy, 45, 3002-3017. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.08.011

Sawchuk, C. N., Lohr, J. M., Lee, T. C., & Tolin, D. F. (1999). Exposure to disgust-evoking imagery and information processing biases in blood-injection-injury phobia. Behavior Research and Therapy, 37, 249-257.

Storbeck, J., & Clore, G. L. (2005). With sadness comes accuracy, with happiness, false memory: Mood and the false memory effect. Psychological Science, 16, 785-791. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01615.x

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