How emotions change memories

How emotions change memories

Plutchik Wheel of Emotions


Back in the 1990s I learned to drive in Amsterdam. You won’t see L-plates in traffic there because it is illegal to drive a car without a licence and therefore the only way to learn is to take lessons at a driving school.

Amsterdam is an utterly excellent place to pass your driving test. Everyone knows about the cycling anarchists lurking in every street (I was a fully fledged one myself) and the hordes of tourists who mistake its quaint little streets for pedestrianised areas. It gets even hairier the moment trams become involved: these have their own rules and they are not what you’d expect. Argue with a tram at your own peril.

Kevlar drivers

My instructor Sandra was a very chatty type. Right at the start of my very first lesson, told me what the pedals were for, how to adjust the mirrors properly, and that we were going to turn left into the Van Hall Straat. Then she asked me what I did for a living.

Sandra’s philosphy was that behind the wheel there is a lot to manage: kids fighting in the back seat in the middle of road works when you’re nearly out of petrol and running late. Her aim was to deliver kevlar drivers: responsible and considerate people who know how to drive and hold down a conversation at the same time, no sweat.

The no sweat did come after plenty of hairy experiences. I passed my test the first time around despite making quite a serious error after just a few minutes: after being told we’d be taking a left turn ahead I drove in the left lane for a bit until the examiner asked me whether my fellow Amsterdam drivers would appreciate my initiative.


I mirrored, signaled and manoeuvred back into my own lane and assumed I’d failed already. The raging nerves subsided and I spent the rest of the test in a pretty relaxed frame of mind because there was nothing to worry about anymore. Afterwards the examiner told me that I passed because he had seen my instincts kick in: no sudden swerving back and calm and confident driving the rest of the way. I was almost sad to pass my test because Sandra and I had had a great deal of fun.

Emotions and recall

Emotions occur when an individual experiences something important. Strong emotions influence our recall of events and can even lead us to construct a different version of events. Some researchers suggest that the more we want to suppress a memory of a highly emotive event – say an intensely stupid error during a driving test – the higher the cognitive load, which in turn reduces the reliability of how we recall the details of the event.

In other words, we reconstruct the event because our emotions more or less tell us to. When I think about my driving test in Amsterdam in the 1990s, I know for a fact that I was driving with my examiner sitting in the passenger seat on my right and that I was driving (mostly!) in the right-hand lane. However, my very vivid recollection is that he is in the passenger seat on my left, and during my error I drove the car in the right-hand lane.

Why emotions matter in coaching

According to my fellow coach Peter Duffell, who is fast becoming the UK’s leading reearcher into coaching and emotions

people may bring fragments of memory together and construct rather than re-construct memory

Duffell and Lawton-Smith, The Coaching Psychologist, Vol 11, No 1, June 2015

This is why it matters to coaches to attend to the emotive domain in sessions. Quite a few coaches feel (see what I did there?) that emotions are out of scope in organisational coaching. I can give you several reasons why this is limiting to the degree of being harmful to the client, but I’ll stick to one: without exploring the emotions involved, we cannot rely on a client’s recollection of an event if it is clear that strong emotions have played part in it.  We need to be equipped to bring the emotions into the session safely and most importantly, recognise when it is appropriate to do so.