A group of researchers representing the Department of Psychology at New York University, Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Weizmann Institute (Israel), conducted an experiment that showed interesting properties of human memory. The study examined whether learned unpleasant associations, namely disgust, can improve our memory and generalize certain categories of stimuli.
Participants in the experiment were aged 13 to 25 and they had to perform conditioning tasks based on the olfactory system (sense of smell). They wore masks attached by a tube to an olfactometer, a special device that measures the sense of smell. They were then shown pictures of two categories: objects (for example, a table) and landscapes. When viewing pictures of one of the categories, volatile compounds with unpleasant smells of rotten fish and manure entered the masks through the olfactometer. During the experiment, the researchers measured the intensity of sweating on the palms of the hands of the participants—increased sweating confirmed the occurrence of unpleasant associations. The next day, the participants underwent an identification test to check the degree of negative reinforcement of the images shown.
The experiment showed that the recognition memory more strongly fixes those events negatively supported by a repulsive smell, and subsequently this smell causes a conditional response, which refers us to Pavlov’s experiments. On the second day of the experiment, the participants recalled more images from the category, which was accompanied by the smells of manure and fish. At the same time, there was no special difference between the two age groups (adults and adolescents). It turns out that unpleasant events (a smell in this case) can indeed stimulate memory for a related stimuli.
It has long been proven that negative experiences are stored in the memory in such a way that a negative association arises, which is then generalized to similar stimuli. Therefore, those who were bitten by a dog as a child are afraid of dogs in general, associating them with a negative memory and generalizing the offending dog with other dogs.
Generalizing negative associations and keeping them in the memory is a characteristic feature of avoidant personality disorder in adolescence, which either passes with age or remains.