It has been shown that stress affects episodic memory in general, but knowledge about stress effects on memory control processes such as directed forgetting is sparse. Whereas in previous studies item-method directed forgetting was found to be altered in post-traumatic stress disorder patients and abolished for highly arousing negative pictorial stimuli in students, no study so far has investigated the effects of experimentally induced psycho-social stress on this task or examined the role of positive picture stimuli. In the present study, 41 participants performed an item-method directed forgetting experiment while being exposed either to a psychosocial laboratory stressor, the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), or a cognitively challenging but non-stressful control condition. Neutral and positive pictures were presented as stimuli. As predicted, salivary cortisol level as a biological marker of the human stress response increased only in the TSST group. Still, both groups showed directed forgetting. However, emotional content of the employed stimuli affected memory control: Directed forgetting was intact for neutral pictures whereas it was attenuated for positive ones. This attenuation was primarily due to selective rehearsal improving discrimination accuracy for neutral, but not positive, to-be-remembered items. Results suggest that acute experimentally induced stress does not alter item-method directed forgetting while emotional stimulus content does.
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