Recalling Memories of Altruism: A Fordham Student’s Research to Increase Personal Well-being

By: Emily Huegler

This year has not given many a reason to smile. One Fordham student’s research, however, has required each of its 153 participants to focus on something positive. In the summer of 2020, Julianna Scofield, a junior at Fordham College Rose Hill, conducted an experiment on altruistic memories and well-being, hoping to find a helpful connection between the two. Her research paper reads, “In a time where physical connection may be difficult, the memories people have may become a source of hope.”

Scofield has been working in Dr. Karen Siedlecki’s Fordham Memory and Aging Lab since her freshman year. Her project idea came to her in the fall of 2019 while taking Father David Marcotte’s class called “The Psychology of Personal Well-Being.” Marcotte taught topics like coping with stress and increasing happiness. At the end of the semester, Scofield learned that altruism, or unselfish concern for the well-being of others, has been shown to increase personal well-being. She was inspired to combine this new knowledge with the work she had done in Dr. Siedlecki’s lab and decided to study recall of altruistic acts. 

“Altruism, in a biological sense, is a very costly act,” Scofield explains, “because an organism puts itself at risk for another organism, which goes against all the laws of nature.” By studying the connection between altruism and well-being, Scofield hopes to find the motivation behind these biologically improbable behaviors. 

Scofield’s research examines altruistic memory recall in three different scenarios: performing an altruistic act, witnessing an altruistic act, and being the recipient of an altruistic act. Participants were asked to perform recall of the memory and complete multiple personality and mood surveys. Based on previous research, she hypothesized that recalling acts of altruism would increase a person’s overall well-being.

The results of Scofield’s study were not significant, however, which Scofield chalks up to the conditions being very similar. She suspects there may have been a general elevated sense of well-being and satisfaction in all three groups that was too similar to tell apart. She had ultimately decided against including a control condition because the studies she had used as inspiration had not, but if she were to repeat the experiment, she might have done this differently. 

Still, Scofield’s project is one of the first studies that exists on recall and altruism, and she maintains that this field has a lot of potential to help people. If altruistic memories prove to increase well-being in further research, Scofield hopes that they could be used as part of a therapy strategy to bolster positive affect. “We all have memories, and if we can use them to make ourselves better and improve our mood, I think that’s something that everyone should try to capitalize on,” Scofield says. “Memories are what we’re always going to have.”

In future research, Scofield plans to study other aspects of memory, in addition to continuing to study altruism. She is particularly interested in how people’s perceptions of events can change over time.

Despite facing logistical struggles because of the pandemic, Scofield enjoyed reading the participants’ memories of strong positive experiences and was happy to share. “There’s so much good in the world that needs to be recognized and studied, and in my opinion, it’s not getting the recognition it deserves,” Scofield explains. “It was nice to contribute to that a little bit more.”

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