Our Stories

Katy LongKaty Long

Pollyanna Memory: Willamette Student Researcher Finds Positive is Better for Memory

It's easier to remember something positive. That's the conclusion that psychology major Katy Long, recently came to when she tallied the results of a unique original research project she's just completed. Long, a former honor student and graduate of Aurora's North Marion High School, says the implications of positive memory or the so-called "Pollyanna Syndrome" for teachers and students could be huge.

Long, who is currently a senior at Willamette, is interested in how people remember. But the research on memory is conflicting. "Some research on memory shows that we remember positive information better," she explains. "Other research shows that we remember negative information better."

Long decided to conduct her own original study, carefully designing her project to resolve problems encountered in past studies. She applied for and won a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, a $2,500 stipend that encourages students to pursue an original idea or area of research beyond what they can study in a classroom setting. To test whether people remember positive or negative information better, Long showed a group of approximately 40 college-age students paintings on computers, had them rate the images as negative or positive and asked them to recall the images in a memory test.

Instead of using already-prepared research tools, Long designed her own, using 80 different images she pulled from public art sites on the Internet. To reinforce the images, she assigned positive, negative or neutral titles to each picture. A negative title might be "venomous snake pit;" a positive title, "a field of golden flowers;" and a neutral title might include "portrait of a dog." Some of the titles related strongly to the images - for instance, images of snakes that had snake-type titles - while other titles didn't relate. Long showed study subjects the images with and without titles and then showed them the images with titles switched from positive to negative.

Long found that the students remembered positive images significantly more often than negative images. The students remembered the positive images that were paired with positive titles the best. She says the results didn't surprise her. "We all know intuitively that it's easier to remember items that are more related," she said. "When you're trying to remember things, it's easier if you can relate it to other things."

The results of Long's study support the "Pollyanna Principle," which says that people remember positive things more readily than negative things. Long says staying positive is something to keep in mind for anyone trying to improve memory.

"Learning environments should be positive," she says. "Keeping the environment positive, making the learning experience a pleasant one and relating the information to things you already know can help you remember things more readily."

For students, Long says test anxiety can hinder the ability to remember. "Try to stay relaxed and positive," she says. "Study with a friend. Have snacks. Make it a positive experience and you'll remember more."