Health: Anything you recall, I recall better: The little details of married life are more vividly ingrained in women's memories than men's. Deborah Jackson explains

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MEMORY IS a selective thing, and what we choose to remember may be as important as how we remember it. Psychologists comparing the vividness of wives' and husbands' memories now confirm what many of us believed all along: that women's recollections of certain personal events are more vivid, if not more accurate, than those of their male counterparts.

Maurice Chevalier's famous confusion in the musical Gigi, when he 'remembered it well', is supported by research. Men generally do find themselves outdone by their wives. As Chevalier recalls a series of events, he is constantly corrected by his old lover (played in the film by Hermione Gingold). Whether they dined at seven or eight, the colour of the dress she wore - these are the specifics that only the woman is supposed to remember.

Psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, suspected that memory was greatly influenced by social pressures. They set out directly to compare the memories of experiences shared by married couples.

Their paper, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, concludes that, for certain landmark events, women's 'memories for events in relationships' are more 'vivid' than men's.

The Canadian experiment resembled a scientific Mr and Mrs quiz. Sixty married couples aged between 22 and 76 were asked to talk about their first date, their last holiday and a recent argument. The spouses themselves, and then observers, were asked to give clarity ratings for their memories of each event.

Researchers were not testing for the truth of each story, but its vividness. They took into account elements such as emotional content, the amount of detail given, and the subjects' own assessments of their powers of recall.

On a rating of one to seven, women emerged about half a point higher than the men for clarity of memory. According to the spouses' own ratings for their memories of the first date and the last argument, the women were 0.68 points clear of the men.

In other words, whether or not it was actually so, couples generally agreed that the husband's memory was hazier than that of his wife.

Michael Ross and Diane Holmberg, the authors of the report, say: 'In our culture, women are socialised to be more concerned with interpersonal relationships and to be more aware of the feelings of others than are men.

'Women may be expected to be interpersonal historians, whereas men may be assigned to remember, for example, information relevant to household maintenance, such as the type of engine oil in the car or the name of the plumber.'

Patrick Rabbitt, who is researching memory at Manchester University's Age and Cognitive Performance Research Centre, says: 'Canonical events, such as getting married and holidays, might be more or less taken for granted by the man. But he might have his own deeply affectionate memories which his spouse would find insignificant.

'Whether a man actually remembers fewer details of his marriage we don't know. You might well find that he remembers different details, or a subset of events which his wife has not considered.'

For most of us, memory is concerned with quite recent happenings, and does not dwell on the distant past. We choose to remember certain events because they will be useful to us in the future.

'A lot of memory has to do with planning,' Professor Rabbitt says. 'I don't think there's any sort of genetically determined role that women must play. A woman's role is conditioned by a variety of things. If your family is your profession, then the details of that profession will naturally be important to you. Memory is a predictive tool which allows you to move forward.

'A woman often has the task of remembering family birthdays. She becomes social secretary to the household. And since she is the person who glues

the family together, she will also be acting as the archivist and interpreter of the marriage.

'It's probably also true that women think more about relationships than men do. They mull over events which are ticking over OK. Men will not tend to do this unless things are going wrong. The classic thing is forgetting the wife's birthday, which is an unforgivable sin.'

About 6,500 men and women aged between 55 and 90 have passed through the Age Research Centre in the past 10 years. The women usually have better memories than the men, says Professor Rabbitt, 'but only because they live longer and tend to keep their wits'.

Mr Ross and Ms Holmberg are more certain of memory differences between men and women. 'A wife's extreme reaction to an oversight by her husband might appear inexplicable to her spouse. The wife may associate the current grievance with a vividly remembered sequence of irritations; in contrast, the husband may regard her annoyance as an unreasonable response to a single incident.'

Penny Mansfield, deputy director of One Plus One, a marriage and partnership research centre in London, describes women as the biographers of marriage. She has interviewed many couples and believes that women's memories function differently from men's.

She says: 'While a man might remember something because it is written in his diary, a woman will say, 'Oh, I remember that because it was two days before my birthday'. Their memories are more 'affectively based' than those of the men.'

'Affective' memories are those rooted in emotion, whether positive or negative, she says. Women tend to invest detail with emotional significance, interpreting their partner's actions through the gloss of their own memories, and storing the resulting data for use in the future.

Ms Mansfield says that men in her interviews were much less likely to be accurate about the timing of events. 'But does it actually matter whether it was April or June? If he doesn't know, it doesn't follow that he doesn't care,' she says.

When it came to describing a recent argument, the Canadian researchers found that women in their survey were far more likely to have started the argument than the men.

Seemingly trivial behaviour on the part of the man triggered the woman's memory of similar behaviour in the past, and the emotional significance she attached to it. Wives initiated 62 per cent of the disputes and husbands 25 per cent. (Observers estimated, however, that wives 'won' 23 per cent and husbands 64 per cent of the arguments.)

The Canadian psychology team reports that the sharpest recollections of all were those held by men about having lost an argument - perhaps because this made it an event charged with emotion. This

concurs with Professor Rabbitt's belief that men become more attentive to the details of a relationship when it is not going well.

But they found a man was far more likely to be 'forgetful' in the presence of his wife. Typically, he would turn to his partner for help. Is this helplessness in deference to the woman's role as the guardian of their mutual memories? Or do men not like to be seen to be good at sentimental reminiscence?

Part of being a couple is the sharing of a narrative of shared experiences. Ms Mansfield says: 'A couple is constantly examining what happens when they are together. Couples who are threatened by each other's different values and experience won't talk about it. But couples who can share memories - and respect the differences - will survive.'