Why mean comments are easier to remember


I’ve gotten thousands of nice comments on my blog entries over the years, but it’s the mean comments that I remember best. Fortunately I don’t get many nasty comments, but when I do they get stuck to my memory with super glue, whereas the nice comments are attached like Post-It notes, easy to peel off and forget. I tend to be a positive person who focuses on the good things in life, so I’ve often wondered why the negative thoughts are the ones that get imprinted so deeply. I’d prefer to erase them like an Etch-a-Sketch, but shaking my head back and forth like that only gives me whiplash.

I’ve got a hunch about why this happens. It has less to do with my attitude and more to do with biochemistry. Research has shown that you make more vivid memories when you are emotionally aroused, and reading an unexpectedly mean comment definitely arouses my emotions. The only time a good comment has created that same passionate response in me is when it’s from someone I respect and admire who I didn’t realize read my blog, or if it’s a particularly poignant comment about how my writing has affected someone’s life. The bad stuff happens more often.

Some of the research is summarized on this site (which includes references if you are a fan of science-y reading with large, unpronounceable words). Various things come into play: your amygdala, stress hormones, your prefrontal cortex. Women are more likely to remember emotional memories, and older people are able to let bad memories fade faster than younger people. But overall the message is clear: you remember a message more clearly if you’re emotional when it happens.

Like I said, my hunch is just a hunch. I doubt anyone has done an experiment to see what types of comments bloggers remember better, and what their emotional state was at the time they read them. I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch though. At blogging conferences I’ve had discussions with other bloggers about bad experiences they’ve had online, and man, does that get people talking like nothing else. If we didn’t remember these semi-traumatic events so vividly, I doubt we’d have so many conversations about them, and I wouldn’t see as many tweets and posts as I do complaining about mean readers.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much you can do to force memories to fade quicker. There has been some successful therapy with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who were able to tone down their memories by thinking about them after taking a beta-blocker called propranolol, which lowers blood pressure and heart rate. When a memory gets accessed, it is later rewritten back on your brain when you’re done, so you can actually change a memory while thinking about it and rewrite it in that altered way. If you remember it when you’re less stressed, you can rewrite it with less emotional intensity attached. This also means that the memories you access the least often are probably the most accurate because they’ve been rewritten the least amount of times.

It’s sort of sad that good comments don’t trigger a huge emotional response in me, though that might ultimately be a good thing. It means that my readers are typically polite and friendly, and it’s only the absence of those qualities that shocks me. I guess I believe in a good world, and that’s not something I can regret, though it’s something I will try harder to remember.

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  1. says

    I have had that issue through life as well. Back when I was a classroom teacher and dealt with parents more often than I do now as a librarian I dreaded making calls to parents because I had a few bad experiences through the years. (I consider a parent agreeing that his/her child should be flogged for speaking to me that way/refusing to do homework/doing poorly in general is a positive call.) I would say 90% of my interactions with parents were positive, but those 10% stuck with me and made me avoid making the calls just because of my intense worries they would be negative.

  2. Ellen says

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), but that has helped me a LOT when it comes to bad memories. Even icky things from books and movies have affected me in the past and stuck (like superglue – your phrase is so fitting!) There’s a lot of research about NLP working well with fears, phobias, depression, and self destructive behaviors too. The vividness of memories has a lot to do with it — fortunately that is something that can be used and changed with NLP.

  3. Mikey says

    @Ellen – Movies! lol. I vividly remember that awful scene from Midnight Express. I saw the movie when it came out, and I still refuse to travel to Turkey. And I am beyond fussy about getting my feet hurt.
    (if you don’t know what I am talking about, do NOT check out that movie, trust me)

  4. says

    I thought you were going to argue that we remember the bad because we subconsciously believe we deserve the criticism, whereas we dismiss compliments and praise because we think we don’t. But you didn’t say that. So maybe you have better self-esteem than me.

    Once I was playing a healer character (a tauren druid, if you care) on the computer game World of Warcraft and one of the group said “you heal funny” or words to that effect. And for about five years now I’ve been wondering what he meant. Heal funny? WTF? I was keeping everyone alive, wasn’t I? I’ve worried about it ever since. All those “thanks for the heals” or “great group, everyone” or “you’re a really good healer” … they just whizz past without making an impression. That one “you heal funny” just keeps on bugging me.

  5. Katie says

    First time commenter! Don’t be alarmed, but I had a dream about you today. Nothing creepy, we were just talking on the phone like old friends. I mentioned that I was glad you were blogging again, and you were surprised, asking me why I never told you that I read your blog. So I decided to let you know that I am most definitely a fan. I found Pasta Queen just after you switched to Jenful. I read all of your Pasta Queen entries, from first to last. (I have an uneventful nightshift job, so I basically got paid to read it, yay!) There were many times that I REALLY wanted to comment, but I never tried because the moment had obviously passed. Long story short, I want to say Thank You for the laughs, the recipes, the inspiration, and eveything else that you share with your readers. (And I hope you remember my comment for a couple of days or so.) Thanks again, Jen!

  6. says

    So true Jennette. I was not a girl who got called out a lot at school, but there were a few times when I messed up and got yelled at. THOSE are the times that stick in my brain, not all the good things people and teachers said to me over the years. I have thin skin, maybe that’s why I remember the negative stuff? I remember a younger boy commenting to me when I was wearing my TOO-short pep club skirt, “Nice legs, kinda like telephone poles.” That was over 40 years ago and I still remember it. I also still dislike that kid and if I ever saw him again (and recognized him after all these years) I would say something nasty back to him. I’ve had time now to think of a great comeback! “Yeah, I WAS fat, but I dieted. You’re still STUPID!” Okay, I ripped that off from somebody else, but it’s a great comeback!

  7. Sheila says

    We’re biologically programmed to pay more attention to dangerous situations than to harmless ones—a very useful survival skill. But somehow we made the leap from true life and death situations to merely embarrassing ones when assessing danger. Well, if we made that leap, we can unmake it! (I’m hoping.)

  8. says

    This is true. One of the worst comments I ever got hurt deeply because 1. It was on my personal Livejournal account. 2. It was a comment about a picture of myself. 3. It was written as a fairly well-thought out poem. A freaking poem! All about how I was too fat to be photographed and it ended with how I needed to join Jenny Craig. I actually cried when I got it and then went crazy about setting my security settings to max on absolutely everything I do on the Internet.

    I’ve received plenty of positive responses too… but that one may stick with me until the end of my days.

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