2011. Vol.2, No.7, 732-736
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.27112
Effects of Weight Consciousness, Circadian Arousal, and
Depression on Young Women’s Memory
Christie Chung, Frishta Sharifi, Sara Harris
Psychology Department, Mills College, Oakland, USA.
Received July 19th, 2011; revised August 25th, 2011; accepted September 26th, 2011.
Weight consciousness has been found to significantly affect women’s cognitive performance. In the present
study, the effects of circadian arousal and depression were investigated by examining the relationship between
young women’s weight consciousness and memory performance. College women were tested on a picture recall
task consisting of neutral and weight-related pictures. Participants were categorized into morning, evening, and
intermediate types, and were tested either in the morning or late afternoon/evening (peak and non-peak testing
times, or control). Our results showed that participants who were weight conscious were also more depressed.
When tested at non-peak times, depressed participants recalled significantly more weight-related pictures than
neutral pictures, while non-depressed participants did not show this recall pattern. These results suggest that
young women with depression are less likely to inhibit memory of weight-related pictures when tested at their
non-peak times of the day.
Keywords: Memory, Women, Weight Consciousness, Circadian Arousal, Depression
“I’m on a diet” is a common phrase among women. Al-
though not everyone who goes on a diet eventually develops an
eating disorder, simply being weight conscious has been found
to pose serious threats to an individual’s cognition. For exam-
ple, Cooper, Deepak, Groscutt, and Bailey (2007) found that
the experience of “feeling fat” was greatly associated with dis-
tress, negative emotions, and first memory of feeling fat.
Weight-preoccupied women were also more likely to nega-
tively interpret an ambiguous figure related to body size and to
remember these stimuli in later memory tests (Jackman, Wil-
liamson, Netemeyer, & Anderson, 1995). The present study
examined the effects of weight consciousness, circadian arousal,
and depression on young women’s memory for weight-related
and neutral information.
Weight Consciousness and Memory
Tekcan, Tas, Topçuoglu, and Yücel (2008) found that ano-
rexic patients had more difficulty than controls in inhibiting
eating disorder-related words in a directed forgetting paradigm
in which they were told to either remember or forget certain
stimuli. This finding suggests that eating disorders may take up
limited cognitive resources that are available for processing
important information such as rehearsing a phone number for
later recall. In a related paradigm, Kemps and Tiggemann
(2005) showed that women who were dieting for weight-loss
had significant executive functioning deficits, but not storage
capacity of the phonological loop and visual-spatial sketchpad
(Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Dieters were also shown to be more
pre-occupied with food-related thoughts than non-dieters,
which subsequently contributed to the executive functioning
deficits observed (Green et al., 2003; Green & Rogers, 1998;
Jones & Rogers, 2003; Shaw & Tiggemann, 2004; Vreugden-
burg, Bryan, & Kemps, 2003). Kemps and Tiggemann’s (2005)
study, along with several other studies in the area suggest that
weight consciousness affects executive functioning (Green et
al., 2003; Vreugdenburg et al., 2003; Kemps, Tiggemann, &
Grigg, 2009), which could subsequently translate into inhibition
deficit and memory problems. Similarly, Kemps, Tiggemann,
& Griggs (2009) also found that food cravings (e.g., chocolate
cravings) significantly affect participants’ direction to crav-
ing-related cues. This effect is especially salient for habitual
food cravers. Based on these previous findings, the present
study tested the hypothesis that participants who were more
weight conscious as measured on the Eating Attitude Test
(EAT; Garner, Olmsted, Bohr, & Garfinkel, 1982) would be
more likely to direct attention to weight-related stimuli; and
thus, have better recall for weight-related stimuli than for neu-
tral stimuli.
Circadian A rousal and Me m ory
Circadian arousal, the 24-hour cycle seen in cognitive func-
tioning (Folkard, 1982), has also been found to interact with
executive functioning, especially inhibition processing (e.g.,
May & Hasher, 1998; Hasher, Chung, May, & Foong, 2002).
Circadian rhythms usually reflect 24-hour cycles of changes in
biological and physiological functions, such as body tempera-
ture, heart rate, and hormone secretion (e.g., Hrushesky, 1994;
Moore-Ede, Sulzman, & Fuller, 1982). Researchers have found
similar 24-hour cycles in cognitive functioning that are sub-
stantially moderated by reliable individual differences (e.g.,
Anderson, Petros, Beckwith, Mitchell, & Fritz, 1991; Petros,
Beckwith, & Anderson, 1990; Yoon, 1997; Yoon, May, &
Hasher, 1998). In general, people can be classified into morn-
ing-type, evening-type, or intermediate-type by the Morning-
ness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ; Horne & Ostberg, 1976).
Inhibition tasks are performed with higher accuracy when par-
ticipants are tested at their peak (i.e., morning-type tested in
morning, and evening-type tested in evening) rather than non-
peak (i.e., morning-type tested in the evening, and evening-type
tested in morning) times of the day—a synchrony effect
(Hasher, Zacks, & May, 1999).
According to Hasher et al. (1999), inhibitory attentional
processes regulate the flow of information from both thought
and perception by 1) limiting access to consciousness to goal
relevant information; 2) deleting irrelevant and no longer rele-
vant information from consciousness; and 3) restraining strong
responses so they can be evaluated for appropriateness. Each of
these functions has been shown to be more efficient when par-
ticipants were tested at peak as compared to non-peak times of
day and are subsequently implicated in participants’ memory
recall and recognition performance (see e.g., May 1999; May &
Hasher, 1998; Yoon et al., 1998).
Weight Cons ciousness, Circad ia n A ro u s al, and
In the present study, the effects of weight consciousness and
circadian arousal on memory were examined in young college
women, aged 18 to 30. Specifically, we examined whether
young women’s memory for weight-related stimuli would be
influenced by their level of weight consciousness and the time
of experimental testing. The primary hypothesis was that
weight conscious young women tested at their non-peak times
would be more likely than non-weight conscious women tested
at their peak times to recall stimuli weight-related than neutral
stimuli. Since depression has also been found to significantly
correlate with weight-related issues and eating disorders (e.g.,
Cooper et al., 2007; Jackman et al., 1995; Koenig & Wass-
erman,1995; Smoller, Wadden, & Stunkard, 1987), and to sig-
nificantly decrease inhibition (Joorman, 2010), the effect of
depression status on memory performance was also examined.
We hypothesized that depressed women who were weight con-
scious would have more difficulty recalling weight-related
information at non-optimal times of the day than those who are
non-depressed and non-weight-conscious.
Eighty-six young women (aged 18 - 30) from Mills College
in Oakland, California participated in this study. All partici-
pants were recruited through email postings, flyers, and under-
graduate classes at Mills College, Oakland, California, USA.
Participants received either course credit or US$10 for partici-
pation. Participants were screened on the phone or through
e-mail for psychological and neurological disorders (Table 1).
The Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ; Horne
& Ostberg, 1976) was administered before participation in the
experiment to determine participants’ circadian arousal (morn-
ing-, evening-, or intermediate-type). Of the 86 participants, 14
were tested at their peak times (morning-type tested in morning:
8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; or evening-type tested in late afternoon/eve-
ning: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.); 19 at their non-peak time (evening-type
in morning; or morning-type in late afternoon/evening), and 53
were controls (intermediate-type tested in the morning or late
Design and Materials
The picture recall task consisted of 15 weight-related pictures
(food, clothing, scenes, objects, and equipment) and 15 matched
neutral pictures, with 2 filler pictures at the beginning and end
of each encoding list. These pictures were equated on complex-
ity, resolution (72 pixel/inch), and size (width: 12inches, height:
10inches). The pictures were obtained from the internet and
were rated for weight-relatedness by a separate group of young
Table 1.
Means and (SDs) for demographics and cognitive measures.
Measure Non-peak
(n = 14) Peak
(n = 19) Control
(n = 53)
Age 20.07
Years of Education 14.15
Body Mass Index 23.48
Beck Depression
Inventory 6.79
Attitudes Test 9.00
Letter Number
Sequencing 11.29
Frequency of
Forgetting 43.07*
Note: *p < .05. Although participants tested at non-peak times had significantly
lower Frequency of Forgetting scores than controls and peak times participants,
the three groups did not differ significantly on overall memory performance
(Figure 1).
Figure 1.
Young womens memory performance by picture type (neutral vs. weight-
related), BDI scores (high vs. low), and testing times (peak, non-peak,
and control).
women (n = 30; see Appendix). Two counterbalanced lists were
created with these pictures.
Participants were tested individually in a quiet laboratory
testing room and were seated in front of a 17-inch computer
screen. Viewing distance from the computer screen was about
30 inches and could be adjusted for participants’ comfort. After
completing the informed consent form, participants completed a
health and demographic questionnaire, on which they also
self-reported their height and weight.
Then, participants were randomly assigned to either one of
the counterbalanced conditions of the picture task. Participants
were instructed to view each picture carefully (presented at a
rate of 4 sec/picture) and rate the valence and arousal of each
picture on a 9-point scale. For the valence scale, 1 = very nega-
tive and 9 = very positive; and for the arousal scale, 1 = very
exciting to 9 = very calming. Participants responded to each
picture by pressing a number between 1 and 9 on the keyboard.
Participants were not told that a memory test would follow.
After receiving oral instructions about this picture task, partici-
pants completed a practice task consisting of 6 unrelated, neu-
tral encoding pictures. This practice task was designed to fa-
miliarize the participants with the actual picture task.
All pictures were presented on a black background. Each trial
started with the presentation of a picture for 4 seconds, fol-
lowed by a black background screen with the 9-point valence
scale in white. The arousal scale appeared only if a response to
the valence scale was entered. Once the arousal response was
entered, the next picture trial of 4 seconds began. If a valence or
arousal response was not entered after 10 seconds (classified as
timeout), the next picture automatically appeared on the screen.
After this picture task, a filled delay period of approximately
5min followed, where the Letter Number Sequencing task
(Wechsler, 1997) was administered. Then participants were
asked to recall as many pictures as they could remember from
the study phase using brief verbal descriptions. Verbal descrip-
tions were recorded on paper by the experimenter. Participants
then completed a personality questionnaire (NEO-FFI; Costa &
McCrae, 2003), the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT; Garner, Olm-
sted, Bohr, & Garfinkel, 1982)—a screening measure for eating
disorders, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck, Ward,
Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961)—to determine the par-
ticipants’ depression status, and the Frequency of Forgetting
questionnaire (Zelinsky & Gilewsky, 2004)—for metamemory
After completion of the tasks, participants were debriefed
and given the option to stand on a weighing scale to have their
actual weight measured. Participants’ actual or self-reported
weights were then used to calculate their body mass indices:
BMI= [weight in pounds/(height in inches) × (height in inches)
× 703]. The entire experimental session lasted approximately
one hour.
Data analyses were conducted using the statistical software
SPSS (PASW) 18.0. Participants were categorized into high
and low BDI and EAT groups by the following criteria:
EAT/BDI low: 0 to 10, EAT/BDI high: 11 and above. Higher
scores on BDI and EAT represent higher rates of depression
and weight consciousness. BDI and EAT scores were signifi-
cantly correlated with each other, r(86) = 3.12, p < .01. BMI
did not correlate significantly with any other measures and
were similar across testing conditions (Table 1). Participants’
picture recall data were first analyzed using a 3 (testing time:
peak, non-peak, control) × 2 (picture type: weight-related vs.
neutral) × 2 (EAT: low vs. high) × 2 (BDI: low vs. high) mixed
factorial ANOVA. The three-way interaction between picture
type x BDI x testing time was significant, F(2, 77) 3.32, p < .05,
η2 = .08. The main effect of picture type was also significant,
F(1, 77) 11.07, p < .01, η2 = .13.
Separate t-test analyses were conducted for each testing con-
dition to further investigate the significant three-way interaction
(Figure 1). For control participants, both low and high BDI
participants did not differ significantly in their recall of
weight-related and neutral pictures, t(41) = 2.31, p < .03; t(12)
= 2.64, p < .03, respectively. Non-depressed (low BDI) partici-
pants tested at peak times, recalled slightly more weight-related
pictures than neutral pictures, Ms = 8.27 vs. 7.27, although this
difference did not reach statistical significance, t(14) = 1.37, p
= .19. Participants with high BDI scores did not show this dif-
ference, Ms = 4.50 vs. 4.75; t(3) = 1.74, p = .87. At non-peak
testing times, participants with high BDI scores recalled sig-
nificantly more weight-related pictures than neutral pictures,
Ms = 9.50 vs. 4.00; t(1) = 3.67, p = .17, while participants with
low BDI scores did not show this statistical significance, Ms =
8.17 vs. 7.00; t(1) = 1.03, p = .33.
The results from the present study showed that weight con-
sciousness and depression were highly correlated; although
only depression, not weight consciousness, significantly influ-
enced memory performance. During peak testing times, par-
ticipants did not differ in their recall for weight-related and
neutral pictures, regardless of depression status. However, dur-
ing non-peak testing times, only non-depressed participants did
not differ in their recall of weight-related or neutral pictures.
Depressed participants recalled significantly more weight-re-
lated than neutral pictures. Thus, peak testing times allowed
participants to focus their cognitive resources on suppressing
weight-related information; while being tested in the non-peak
hours greatly hindered depressed participants’ ability to sup-
press weight-related information.
Weight Consciousness and Memory
The findings in this study are novel and interesting. Contrary
to our hypothesis, weight consciousness as measured by the
Eating Attitude Test (EAT) was not significantly related to our
participants’ memory recall for weight-related and neutral
stimuli in this study. Past studies have shown that cognition
may be affected by participants’ dieting status (Kemps & Tig-
gemann, 2005), food craving status (Kemps & Tiggemann,
2009), body image perception (Cooper et al., 2007; Jackman et
al., 1995), and eating disorder condition (Tekcan et al., 2008).
Although the present results did not directly show a link be-
tween weight consciousness and memory, there is reason to
believe that weight consciousness may be implicated in the
overall pattern of results because of the significant positive
correlation between EAT and BDI scores. Many studies have
demonstrated a significant correlation between the weight con-
sciousness and depression (e.g., Cooper et al., 2007; Jackman et
al., 1995; Koenig & Wasserman,1995; Smoller, Wadden, &
Stunkard, 1987), yet, only a few studies have directly examined
the impact of these two factors on women’s cognition simulta-
neously (Hunt & Cooper, 2001). The present results suggest
that many of the previous findings relating weight issues with
cognition could be explained by the depression status associ-
ated with participants’ weight concerns. Further studies are
necessary to tease apart the effects of these two variables.
Depression and Memory
Several mood-induction studies have shown that negative
affect increases accuracy in retrieval (Storbeck & Clore, 2005);
while positive states reduce recall accuracy by decreasing
processing capacity (Ruder & Bless, 2003; Mackie & Worth,
1989) and reducing processing motivation (Wegener & Petty,
1994). Affective states have also been shown to increase the
accessibility of mood-congruent material (Bower, 1981). De-
pression is a disorder characterized by difficulty in regulating
mood states, and thus, understanding the complex interaction
between mood and memory is important when interpreting the
results of the present study.
Depression gives rise to difficulties in cognitive control,
which leads to deficit in memory for non-emotional information
(Burt, Zembar, & Niederehe, 1995; Hertel, 2004). However,
Hertel (2004) found that depressed participants’ deficit in recall
is not likely to be a cognitive deficit because when the opportu-
nity to ruminate was eliminated, depressed and non-depressed
participants performed similarly. Hertel’s (2004) finding can
therefore be related to the literature on cognitive control and
inhibition—depressed participants are more likely to focus their
attention on irrelevant information and thus, exhibit inhibition
deficit on cognitive tasks (Hasher & Zacks, 1988).
Depression may also make negative material more accessible
and positive material less accessible—mood congruency (Mat-
thews & MacLeod, 2005). Many studies have presented results
consistent with this framework (see Blaney, 1986; Matt, Vaz-
quez, & Campbell, 1992). In a meta-analysis, Matt et al. (1992)
found that depressed participants remember 10% more negative
than positive words. Non-depressed participants, on the other
hand, showed a positive bias in 20 out of 25 studies. Using a
Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm, Joormann, Teachman,
and Gotlib (2009) also found a link between depression and
false recall of negative material.
Why does depression lead to increased negative recall?
Joormann (2010) presented a comprehensive overview of this
literature and proposed a direct relation between depression and
inhibition deficit of negative material. As mentioned in our
introduction, inhibition serves three specific functions in con-
sciousness: it limits access to goal relevant information; deletes
irrelevant information; and restrains strong and viable re-
sponses for later evaluation (Hasher et al., 1999). Joormann
(2010) proposed that depression interferes with one’s ability to
prevent negative, mood-congruent, material from accessing
working memory, which may lead to rumination of negative
Depression, Circadian Arousal, and Memory
The present study is the first to demonstrate an effect of de-
pression on circadian arousal and memory. Based on the syn-
chrony effect (Hasher et al., 1999), participants tested at peak
times should perform more optimally on cognitive inhibitory
tasks than those tested at non-peak times. The present results
further extended this finding as the circadian arousal effect
interacted with participants’ depression status. Depressed par-
ticipants who were tested at non-peak times recalled signifi-
cantly more weight-related than neutral pictures. However,
depressed participants who were tested at peak times did not
show this recall difference. One explanation for this pattern of
result is that non-depressed participants tested at peak times
were better able to inhibit weight-related information than de-
pressed participants tested at non-peak times of the day. The
control participants showed a significant recall bias for
weight-related pictures, regardless of depression status. This
suggests that the weight-related pictures may have been inher-
ently more memorable to begin with. Even with this starting
point, however, there were significantly different patterns of
picture recall in participants tested at peak and non-peak times.
According to the synchrony effect (Hasher et al., 1999), par-
ticipants tested at peak hours of the day are more likely to util-
ize inhibition cognitively. If weight-related information was
what the depressed participants tried to inhibit (given the sig-
nificant correlation between depression and weight conscious-
ness), then the synchrony effect explanation could be applied to
explain the present findings. Namely, depressed participants
were more likely to suffer from inhibition deficit of mood-
congruent material when tested at non-peak hours of the day.
This hypothesis is further supported by the finding that
non-depressed participants tested at peak times, who are sup-
posedly more capable in utilizing inhibition to filter out
weight-related materials, recalled significant more neutral than
weight-related pictures.
The results from this study are critical in understanding
weight conscious and depressed women’s cognitive ability in
academic and work settings. Young adults are often required to
attend school or work during hours that are not necessarily
cognitively optimal for them. This study sheds light on the
negative cognitive consequences that such a schedule could
have on depressed young women with regards to weight-related
materials. Future research will extend the present findings by
examining interactions of depression and weight consciousness
in memory processes around the 24-hour clock. Men and older
adults will also be tested in follow-up studies to examine the
generalizability of the present results.
This project was funded by a Meg Quigley Women’s Fel-
lowship and a Mills College Faculty Research Grant. We thank
Sara A. Wong for her assistance in programming the experi-
ment and Ekaterina Mahinda for her help in testing participants.
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Appendix Sample neutral pictures (matched each weight-related picture
Sample weight-related pictures: