Acute stress throughout the memory cycle: Diverging effects on associative and item memory

Elizabeth V. Goldfarb, Alexa Tompary, Lila Davachi, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Acute stress can modulate memory for individual parts of an event (items), but whether it similarly influences memory for associations between items remains unclear. We used a within-subjects design to explore the influence of acute stress on item and associative memory in humans. Participants associated negative words with neutral objects, rated their subjective arousal for each pair, and completed delayed item and paired associative recognition tasks. We found strikingly different patterns of acute stress effects on item and associative memory: for high-arousal pairs, preencoding stress enhanced associative memory, whereas postencoding stress enhanced item memory. Preretrieval stress consistently impaired both forms of memory. We found that the influence of stress-induced cortisol also varied, with a linear relationship between cortisol and item memory but a quadratic relationship between cortisol and associative memory. These findings reveal key differences in how stress, throughout the memory cycle, shapes our memories for items and associations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-29
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019


  • Acute stress
  • Associative memory
  • Emotion
  • Item memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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