Are Bad Memories Useful?

Our memories about our own lives are one of the primary ways we make sense of who we are and how the world works.

As I’ve written about before, there are at least three ways people tend to make use of their autobiographical memories:

  • Guiding future behavior by learning from the past
  • Creating a sense of identity
  • Forming social connections by sharing memories with others

While almost any memory could serve these goals at least in theory, not all memories are created equal. For one thing, our autobiographical memories range greatly in terms of how positive or negative they are.

A newly published study in (appropriately) the journal Memory looks specifically at the question of how people use negative memories from their lives. Because negative memories are both potentially useful and potentially unpleasant, the researchers were interested in how people tended to deal with that contradiction.

To that end, they asked people to recount memories and to rate how those memories either helped or hurt in meeting the three goals listed above. It turned out that while good memories were generally helpful in that regard, bad memories could be either helpful or harmful to varying degrees.

For each memory, the researchers asked people something else: if you could erase this memory, would you?

Of course, participants didn’t actually have the option to do that – we’re not going to go completely Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here. But the researchers were interested in which memories people would want to toss out given the choice.

They found that the more useful a memory was in meeting the three goals, the more people wanted to keep it. Conversely, the more it tended to interfere with meeting those goals, the readier people were to erase it. For negative memories, then, whether people wanted to hang onto those memories depended on how helpful they found those memories.

My personal take is that I would be hesitant to erase even unpleasant memories. Memories from times in my life I wouldn’t want to go back to still teach me something about myself, and hopefully help me make more informed decisions in the future. If you have any thoughts on what memories you’d choose to erase, leave a comment below!