Repetition doesn’t make things easier

In my continuing mission to annoy certain people, I’d like to discuss the idea that bad things get easier with repetition. Well, really, the idea that once you’ve been through something hard, the next time it shouldn’t be so bad, because you know what to expect.

Yeah yeah, if you know me, you already know where I’m going with this, right? Pregnancy, of course!

The science I’m thinking of is a paper that was published this month, which found that if people expected an unpleasant or painful experience to happen again soon, their memories of their discomfort were more negative.

When faced with the anticipated return of the experience, people prepare for the worst, leading them to remember the initial experience as more aversive…. These results indicate that people’s tendency to remember aversive experiences as less unpleasant than they actually were (as demonstrated in prior research) does not necessarily imply that people are willing to re-engage in these experiences—because the anticipation of repeating the experience may counteract the initial memory bias.

Someday I’m going to investigate to see if anyone has studied the amnesia that most women seem to get after pregnancy and childbirth. Everybody told me that I would forget all the bad parts after my daughter was born. Uh…not so much. And thus I was just a tad reluctant to get pregnant again (::pause for everyone to laugh at the understatement::).

But I was told that I was remembering things as worse than they were and that I was exaggerating and being irrational about pregnancy. In addition, certain people who shall remain nameless told me that since I’d been through pregnancy before, it shouldn’t be so scary, because I knew what to expect. So let’s go back to the research, shall we?

Most of the studies in this paper were done in a controlled lab situation, but the last involved menstruation. And that included something I wasn’t expecting:

Furthermore, if expecting to re-engage in an aversive experience indeed counteracts people’s tendency to remember past aversive experiences as overly rosy (Mitchell et al., 1997), then bracing for a return may, in fact, lead to more accurate memories…. In addition to the data from women who were not
currently menstruating, we also asked women who were currently menstruating to rate the painfulness of their current period.

You can go to the article to read the statistics, but boiling it down: Women who were farther from their last or next menstrual cycle remembered their period as less painful, while women who were closer to their last or next cycle provided pain scores that were similar to the women who were currently menstruating. Anticipation made their memories more accurate, not less.

So, when I was faced with the prospect of going through pregnancy a second time, after a very traumatic first pregnancy, perhaps I wasn’t imagining things. Preterm labor, bed rest, breathing problems, heartburn, fibroids, dilating from 3 cm to 9 cm in 20 minutes, a baby going into distress, and a c-section actually are distressing and painful. Who knew?

But hey, what’s a little post-traumatic stress disorder between friends, right? (Zoloft: It’s what’s keeping me from killing you!)

Reference: “The Pain Was Greater If It Will Happen Again: The Effect of Anticipated Continuation on Retrospective Discomfort,” Jeff Galak, PhD, Carnegie Mellon University, and Tom Meyvis, PhD, New York University; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 140, No. 1.

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About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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