A key function of memory is to use past experience to predict when something important might happen next. Indeed, cues that previously predicted arousing events (emotional harbingers) garner more attention than other cues. However, the current series of five experiments demonstrates that people have poorer memory for the context of emotional harbinger cues than of neutral harbinger cues. Participants first learned that some harbinger cues (neutral tones or faces) predicted emotionally arousing pictures and others predicted neutral pictures. Then they studied associations between the harbinger cues and new contextual details. They were worse at remembering associations with emotional harbingers than with neutral harbingers. Memory was impaired not only for the association between emotional harbingers and nearby digits but also for contextual details that overlapped with or were intrinsic to the emotional harbingers. However, new cues that were inherently emotionally arousing did not yield the same memory impairments as the emotional harbingers. Thus, emotional harbinger cues seem to suffer more from proactive interference than do neutral harbinger cues, impairing formation of new associations with cues that previously predicted something arousing.
Mather, M., & Knight, M. (2008). The emotional harbinger effect: Poor context memory for cues that previously predicted something arousing. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 8(6), 850–860. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0014087