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.

How emotions change memories

In praise of ‘mild unhappiness’

White coffee mug with the text 'Meh.'

Happiness, it seems, has become synonymous with success. It won’t do to feel meh or mild unhappiness about something: we aspire to having constant positive emotional responses that boost our mental resources and motivation.

Positive psychologists, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener penned a new book titled The Upside of Your Dark Side in which they argue the case for what they term ‘mild unhappiness’, a term perhaps best explained as dependent on context.

They explain that there are tasks which really benefit from a certain level of fed up-ness to get them done. Familiar and routine tasks which no longer excite us but require our full attention to be done well are such an example. Also tasks which ask us to engage on a level of detail we do not normally favour or things we have been putting off because they take us out of our comfort zone in some other way.

One can be too happy

Feeling (too) happy too often, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue, can get in the way of getting things done, because:

  • we get used to being comfortable, and start taking things for granted
  • we are less likely to attend to detail and think more in broad terms
  • we tend to minimise negatives to maintain our happy outlook
  • we become desensitised to feeling happy, and so start seeking out events that trump the last one that made us feel happy
  • we can also become far more sensitive to negative emotions to the point where they become overwhelming – amplification
  • our happiness can impair our own and others’ performance

Of course the authors acknowledge there is a great deal of evidence of the benefits of happiness brings. Being happy is linked to benefits such as higher incomes, better immune systems, kindness and wearing seatbelts. They caution against the unrealistic pursuit of happiness, and argue the case for a better balance.

Mild unhappiness is also clearly distinct from serious, debilitating unhappiness which leads to social isolation or mental and emotional disorders. Mild unhappiness is more about being on the fed up side of indifference.

The business case for mild unhappiness

Emotions which we habitually label as negative can in fact be very helpful in business situations. Here are some examples.

Angry people are less gullible

Being aware of anger rising is informative to you. Because anger is disagreeable in itself, we tend to check whether it is justified to feel angry, and pay closer attention to what is happening. We read the situation in more detail than we would if we were happier about it; in other words, we are less easily influenced by someone’s arguments if we angry.

Anyone who works in customer services knows how hard it is to convince an angry customer who is scrutinising a product or service they are unhappy with!

Anxiety is a safeguard

Anxiety deservedly gets a bad press, because we know high levels of anxiety are bad for our health. At the same time anxiety serves its purpose: it is a very clear indicator something isn’t right.

Short bursts or low levels of anxiety shake us out of complacency and trigger processes that sharpen our senses and heighten our perception and awareness. Anxiety also boosts our problem solving capability, and helps us see creative answers to problems where in a less heightened mental state we would have made no such links.

Approaching deadlines are a prime example of anxiety triggers. In my practice as a marketer I hurtled from one to the next, and realised that I seemed to meet certain deadlines much more creatively (a very important ingredient of marketing) when I was experiencing the right amount of anxiety.

The high of mild unhappiness

The productive use of happiness and mild unhappiness dependent on context is what the authors refer to as ‘wholeness’.

Something the book doesn’t mention, but which I experience often myself, is the feeling of achievement that follows the productive use of mild unhappiness.  It is not only that the task ended up being done after getting angry about it and taking a few risks which feels great. The memory of how it got done is so vivid that it serves as a useful reminder of where the line is between mild and full-blown unhappiness.


How emotions change memories

Emotions at work


Emotions colour the world as we perceive it, driving our behaviour and shaping decisions we make – we are human, after all. Advertisers and marketers know this, and tap into it to increase sales.

Everybody knows it, and we knowingly buy into it: it’s part of the deal, as it were.

Emotions at work in advertising

Take for example the annual anticipation around the John Lewis Christmas advert (and yes, ‘anticipation’ is an emotion in itself). See what they did there? We haven’t even seen it, and already we’re getting emotional.

Last year’s was about two friends, a bear and a hare, preparing for Christmas cheer and finding love. This year’s is about two fiends, a boy and a penguin, preparing for Christmas cheer and finding love. The whole thing couldn’t be more formulaic if they tried, but it doesn’t matter, because we love a bit of love in our Christmas ads:

The ad, launched a good six weeks before Christmas, helps us get into the mood by appealing to values many of us share, such as family values, friendship and loyalty, and of course, generosity. John Lewis is especially interested in that one.

Emotions at work – at work

The funny thing about emotions is that while we’re all quite happily crowding around Steve’s PC at work to coo over the cute John Lewis penguin, many of us would feel uncomfortable if Steve then opened the team meeting by asking each of us how we feel about our important project being delayed by three months.

Collectively melting over penguins and hares is acceptable because we are taking a break from work and are having a social moment where we let our colleagues into our personal lives for the length of a YouTube video. We feel connected to each other, and this makes us happy. Then we sigh a final ‘aah, that was cute’, shake it all off and switch back into our emotionally detached professional personas. Work, according to many of us, is a purely rational place requiring us to fire on all cognitive cylinders but few of our emotional ones, if possible none.

Coaching and emotions

Of course, the above is black-and-white and most of us will see more nuance than that, if only because emotions are a personal and subjective experience. Perhaps this is more about emotional literacy than anything.

Take for example ‘Fred’, who is a manager in a large non-profit organisation. Last week he remarked that he never knew what to say when a certain colleague asked how he felt about the meeting. Fred had noticed this colleague always asked everyone this question towards the end of meetings, and wondered about it.

When I asked him why the question was a difficult one, he replied that it made him uncomfortable to be invited into the emotive domain at work. Fred’s personal preference was to keep things rational so he knew where things were, and decisions could be made on well-understood arguments that could be reasoned dispassionately. And when I asked him what was important about that to him, he replied:

‘It’s likely to be harmonious that way, and that makes me happy. And above all else, I want to be happy at work, or I’d have to leave’. 

As he spoke the very words, a glint appeared in his eyes and a big grin spread across his face.

We spent a good 20 minutes conversing about emotions at work while creating an ’emotive landscape’ on the table using cards. Fred had no trouble whatsoever picking out the emotions he draws on at work and recognises in others, and talked me through the gradations he saw between helpful and obstructive emotions at work. When the landscape was complete, he took a picture on his iPad to show his wife.

Making emotions work

While talking and exploring Fred realised that he is very driven to check his colleagues too are happy at work and feels responsible for making sure they can be, if it is in his power to make a difference. His colleague’s motivation for asking how people feel about the meeting suddenly became much clearer to Fred. He decided to try the approach himself and find out if and how this changes the way he can positively influence his colleagues.

I’m curious and excited to find out how he’s getting on at our next session.


For more about the eMotive Cards I use in my practice, visit

emotive cards: working with emotions