Skip navigation

Experiments Show Childhood Memories of Emotion toward Mothers Can Change

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 10:43am | By: David Tisdale

When we re-evaluate the people closest to us – including our parents – our memories of the emotions we felt for them as children may be affected.

That’s the finding of a study conducted by University of Southern Mississippi (USM) assistant professor of psychology, Dr. Lawrence Patihis; co-authors include USM alumnus Cristobal Cruz and psychology doctoral student Mario Herrera. Their first experiment, which focused specifically on one’s relationship with their mother, included approximately 300 participants recruited online.

Participants in the experiment were separated into groups, which included a series of writing exercises that, for some groups, changed current evaluations of their mother’s positive attributes that are important in parenting.

One group was asked to describe recent examples of their mother’s traits to include those associated with warmth, generosity, competence and parental guidance, while others were asked to write about deficits in these areas. Two other comparison groups included one with written responses about a teacher, and the other receiving no writing prompt. They then filled out the Memory of Love Towards Parents Questionnaire (MLPQ), which includes items measuring the participants’ memories of feelings toward their mother at various ages as a youth, as well as current feelings of love as an adult.

The results showed that changing current evaluations of mothers influenced memories of love for mom during childhood. This was true for those whose memories of love felt during first, sixth and ninth grade. Those who were in the group that re-evaluated their mothers upwardly reported higher memories of love in childhood compared to those who were in the group who re-evaluated their mothers downwardly. A four-week follow-up showed some of the effects had endured. Analysis also showed changes in mood did not explain the differences between groups, suggesting instead that changes in current cognitive evaluations is a better explanation.

A second experiment with another 300-plus group of participants the researchers checked for possible problems in the first experiment. They found that memories of love before the experiment did indeed change after the experiment. Memories of love in the group asked to write out recent positive examples of their mothers’ character went up, while the negative group went down. Again, current evaluative judgements of the mother appeared to cause the change, rather than changes in mood.

“Past research has shown that memories of emotion may change according to current cognitions. Nevertheless, it had never been investigated in childhood memories of emotion before, nor had past research in this area involved memories of emotion towards parents or period of time in childhood,” Patihis said of the project. “We expanded past research into a new area that is of great interest for a number of reasons, while greatly adding to past research in terms of helping to establish a causal relationship.

“This is probably self-evidently important to many people, because they may recognize how they have re-evaluated their own parents, and I expect many people might be shocked to learn that their memories of love they had once felt may have changed too. If people know about these memory distortions, they may take them into account in such a way to preserve good close relationships.”

Consequences of misremembering memories of love in childhood could cause problems, Patihis said, noting that overestimating the amount of love felt in childhood may mask problems in child-rearing practices that might otherwise be changed from one generation to the next, if memory were more accurate.

“Underestimating memories of love once felt towards parent in is a self-evidently tragic loss of something most precious in one’s life, and of course a disservice to the efforts and sacrifices of the parent,” he said. “Accurate memory is precious.”

There are also applications for the research results in psychotherapy, Patihis said, noting that some psychotherapies may involve the negative re-evaluation of parents, and therapists and clients should now know that there may be a tragic side-effect of such therapy—the worsening of childhood memories of precious emotions such as love. “How awful would it be to be blind to that negative side effect,” he said. “With these experiments, we are blind no more.”

“There is a Latin saying” Patihis added, “ubi dubium, ibi libertas which roughly translates as: where [there is] doubt, there [is] freedom. Knowing that memories of emotion can change with current thoughts gives us the gift of doubt that can help us make good decisions and be fair towards others. This can preserve and enhance long term relationships – including with parents and others. Taking memory biases into account may help people preserve accurate memory and evaluations of parents.”

In the future, Patihis, Herrera, and their research team plan to expand on this research to include looking at the effects of other emotions, and how life successes and failures may factor into childhood memories or later planned future behaviors toward parents. Findings of this study have been published in an Association for Psychological Science journal, Clinical Psychological Science.

The USM School of Psychology is housed in the College of Education and Human Sciences. For information about Dr. Patihis’ work, including as director of the School’s Cognition and Memory Lab, visit