New publication: A commentary on forgetting

I had a lot of fun co-authoring this newly published article with my former PhD advisor Bethany Teachman. It is a commentary on this article by Fawcett and Hulbert, who argue that forgetting is a “feature” rather than a “bug” of human cognition. We bring evidence from mental health research to bear on some of their claims about the emotional benefits of forgetting, and suggest an alternative theoretical framework (informed by my work on cognitive integrity, i.e., self-honesty) to help make sense of these seemingly conflicting findings. Here are some representative excerpts:

We suggest a need to distinguish between forgetting processes that serve the function of updating and flexibly accessing one’s knowledge base for improved action guidance (which we term knowledge-constructive forgetting) versus those processes that serve the function of censoring or distorting one’s knowledge base for the sake of short-term emotional relief (which we term knowledge-avoidant forgetting).


In fact, research on the cognitive mechanisms of PTSD (e.g., Resick, Monson, & Chard, 2014) suggests that forgetting of traumatic memories serves just the sort of “Guardian” function the authors describe—by avoiding and selectively forgetting certain hard-to-integrate details of their traumatic experience, these individuals preserve the “stability” of beliefs they held prior to the trauma. Yet, this Guardian function can have negative long-term consequences, especially when it means unhelpful, self-blaming beliefs remain stable. For instance, believing that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” (Hafer & Begue, 2005) can be a devastating belief to hang on to if one has experienced a trauma.

Thus, rather than encouraging forgetting, the most efficacious therapies for PTSD actively encourage remembering of the contextual details associated with the trauma to help reduce experiential avoidance. As Mott and colleagues note, “Repeatedly writing and talking about the details of the traumatic memory are central therapeutic elements of both Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE), two of the most widely disseminated evidence-based treatments for PTSD” (Mott, Galovski, Walsh, & Elwood, 2015, p. 47). This exposure to previously avoided and forgotten aspects of one’s traumatic memories, in turn, provides a basis for integrating those memories with the rest of one’s experience and updating one’s beliefs accordingly. For example, a patient might come to recognize that “bad things do sometimes happen to good people, though the probability of this happening to me again is low, and I have the resources to cope in case it does.”

These arguments extend beyond populations dealing with PTSD. For instance, there is evidence that depressed and anxious individuals also engage in strategies that serve knowledge-avoidant, “Guardian”-like functions, and again, these strategies are associated with poorer long-term outcomes. Indeed, there is now growing evidence that perseverative thought processes like rumination and worry (common to depression and anxiety, respectively) function at least in part as experiential avoidance strategies (Dickson et al., 2012, Newman and Llera, 2011). Further, by selectively elaborating on relatively abstract, overgeneral conclusions about one’s experience (e.g., “No one will ever want to hire me”) and minimizing the elaboration of episodic details that might have painful but actionable implications (e.g., “I procrastinated for a week before replying to that job interview invitation”), such knowledge-avoidant processing strategies likely contribute to the well-established autobiographical memory deficits in emotionally disordered individuals (see also Dillon and Pizzagalli, 2018, Ono et al., 2016)…. Analogously, Sumner (2012) posited that the tendency to recall past experiences in a vague, overgeneral manner may itself serve as an avoidance strategy…. [T]he poorer recall of such details, in turn, is associated with more negative outcomes for depressed individuals (Sumner et al., 2010).


…Just as in the case of traumatized individuals who forget painful but potentially informative aspects of their traumatic experiences, the dearth of autobiographical details likely impairs the ability of depressed persons to “learn from experience” when problem-solving or making decisions about the future. The depressed individual who strategically forgets how long she procrastinated on responding to a job interview invitation before receiving a rejection letter, as in the above example, will be less equipped to secure a better outcome in the future. As such, the emerging field of “memory therapeutics” (interventions derived from basic research that aim to reduce memory failures and improve autobiographical retrieval) shows some promising effects in reducing depressive symptoms (Dalgleish & Werner-Seidler, 2014). Likewise, a significant component of evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders involves helping people expose themselves to the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions they had been avoiding to learn that such internal states are transient and tolerable. Upon completing such treatments, most patients report decreased recurrence of the negative thoughts and images that previously plagued them (e.g., Newby, Williams, & Andrews, 2014)—not, presumably, because of an increased ability to forget these distressing mental states, but because of a reduced preoccupation with doing so.

Finally, quoting from the Conclusion [emphasis added]:

As one of us has argued elsewhere (Gorlin & Schuur, 2019), distinguishing between these fundamentally different metacognitive functions can help clarify why some of our most sophisticated cognitive capacities sometimes work to undermine rather than promote our long-term thriving. According to this framework, the overarching aim of “knowledge-constructive” processes is to help us build and maintain a streamlined, up-to-date knowledge base that can effectively guide us in navigating the world and pursuing our valued goals. This type of working knowledge base is akin to what a long line of ethical philosophers and, more recently, social and applied psychologists (e.g., Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006) have referred to as practical wisdom—that is, a well-integrated, readily accessible set of principles, derived from learning and experience, that can flexibly and appropriately guide one’s actions in wide-ranging situations.

By contrast, the function of “knowledge-avoidant” processes is to censor or distort our knowledge base so that we may feel as if we are effectively navigating the world and pursuing our valued goals. While this type of forgetting (which roughly aligns with the “Guardian” functions described by the authors) can often provide emotional relief in the short-term, we suggest that it will tend to backfire in the long-term, given both the transience of any given emotional state and the fact that pretending does not actually make it so.

Notably, the “knowledge-constructive” construct stands in sharp contrast to the mere accumulation of remembered facts and details that fail to guide us toward more effective everyday decision-making. The “Librarian” and “Inventor” functions described by the authors align well with this classic account of practical wisdom as a feat of active, goal-directed information-processing, achieved through the demanding practice of selectively seeking out and working to understand and integrate new inputs insofar as they have potentially actionable implications for one’s valued goal-pursuits. By implication, such a practice also entails selectively ignoring or disengaging from inputs that offer no informational value, or weighing the relative value of other inputs one could process instead, given one’s limited processing resources. These can be nuanced and difficult judgments to make, of course, and simply having a knowledge-constructive intention does not guarantee that one will always get a good result.Yet, as long as our basic intention is to access the information we need in order to achieve our goals, we have a fighting chance at encountering corrective feedback that guides us to course-correct eventually. By contrast, when we selectively forget or ignore information on the basis of how uncomfortable it makes us feel, we stack the deck against ourselves.


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