Fans of the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals will be anxiously following every inning of baseball during this year’s World Series. But how much will they remember about the key games five or six years from now?
New research suggests it largely depends upon on whether their team won or lost.
A study just published in the journal Psychological Science contradicts the notion we have sharper memories of negative events. Catholic University psychologists Carolyn Breslin and Martin Safer found fans of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox more accurately recalled key playoff games in which their team prevailed.
Their study, which was conducted in late 2008, featured 1,563 baseball fans who reported “attending, watching, or reading about the decisive 2003 and 2004 American League Championship games.” Seventy-eight percent called themselves Red Sox fans, 14 percent were Yankees fans, and 8 percent were neutral. (The high percentage of Red Sox fans reflects the fact many learned of the study via a post on a Red Sox-related website.)
After being reminded about the outcome of the two games — the Yankees won in 2003, the Red Sox in 2004 — fans were asked a series of specific questions about the contests, including the final score, the winning and losing pitchers, where it was played, and whether it went into extra innings.
Unsurprisingly, the memories of the neutral fans were less accurate than those of the fans whose teams were participating. Previous research has found emotionally arousing experiences, whether positive or negative, are likely to be remembered more vividly and recalled more accurately.
But the key result was a surprise. “We predicted that Yankee and Red Sox fans would remember more details about the game their team lost than about the game their team won,” the researchers write, “but in fact, we found the opposite pattern.”
In addition, “fans reported more vivid memories of the game that their team won,” and said they thought about that game more frequently and/or saw more media coverage afterward, compared to the game their team lost.
These findings contradict those of three earlier studies, which found people remembered negative public events more accurately than positive ones. But the participants in those studies — including a group of East German communists who were attempting to adjust to a new system after the fall of the Berlin Wall — “were living in environments with frequent reminders of the negative events,” Breslin and Safer write.
In contrast, “Our fans had three to four intervening baseball seasons to selectively remember what felt good and forget what felt bad,” they note, “and presumably their negative memories faded faster than comparable positive memories. Our results are more consistent with studies of autobiographical memories, which find that most individuals relive and recall more positive than negative memories about their lives.”
"It is the parades, merchandise, championship team pictures, etc. that help keep the positive memories alive for many years," Safer added. "Every time a Boston fan puts on his 2004 championship hat, he is reminded of the win, and so are the Boston fans who see others wearing 2004 championship hats."
So take heart, fans. If that final game is a closely fought, tense affair, you’ll remember it vividly — if your team comes out on top. If not, it’s far more likely to fade, leaving behind only a vague feeling of regret. There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s no rule prohibiting memory loss.