Pure Genius

Study: Packing your troubles away keeps bad memories at bay

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Does stowing memories away actually make us feel better? A new study suggests it does.

A recent New York Times Modern Love essay introduced us to Death Bear, a 7-foot-tall performance artist in a bear suit who, by appointment, will whisk away reminders of a failed relationship and other painful mementos. It's a quirky take on a sad refrain, the process of collecting items that remind us of hurt feelings, hiding them away in a box and shelving them in a cluttered closet.

But does stowing memories away -- or handing them off to a stranger -- actually make us feel better?

A new study out of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests it does. Packing away materials related to an unpleasant experience improved negative feelings toward the event -- and led to psychological closure, the researchers found in four distinct experiments.

The paper, Sealing the Emotions Genie: The Effects of Physical Enclosure on Psychological Closure, was written by Dilip Soman, a Rotman School marketing professor, Xiuping Li of the National University of Singapore and Liyuan Wei of City University of Hong Kong, and is to be published in Psychological Science.

"If you tell people, 'You've got to move on,' that doesn't work," Soman said. "What works is when people enclose materials that are relevant to the negative memories they have. It works because people aren't trying to explicitly control their emotions."

More work is needed to understand exactly why the ritual of removing from sight those items that produce negative feelings makes us feel better, the researchers said. They wrote:

It is not clear whether people need to actually go through the process of "physical enclosure" to attain the effect of psychological closure. It is also likely that merely observing others doing the enclosing for them is sufficient to sooth their emotions. Future study is required to determine whether the activity itself or its consequence (i.e., the emotionally laden item being sealed up) is essential for mitigation of negative emotions.

The authors did suggest that their work could provide sales opportunities. If people realize that items reminding them of painful past events are distracting, they might buy services that take away the memories. For example, fast pick-up couriers could expeditiously remove old photos of an ex, while pre-paid mortgage deals could relieve a buyer's sense of debt burden.

And, of course, there's always Death Bear.

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure