The two sides of adversity: the effect of distant versus recent adversity on updating emotional content in working memory

Previous research suggests that adversity can have both adaptive and maladaptive effects, yet the emotional and working memory processes that contribute to more or less adaptive outcomes are unclear. The present study sought to investigate how updating emotional content differs in adolescents who have experienced past, recent, or no adversity. Participants who had experienced distant adversity (N = 53), no adversity (N = 58), or recent adversity only (N = 20) performed an emotion n-back task with emotional facial expressions. Results revealed that the distant adversity group exhibited significantly faster reaction times (RTs) than the no adversity and recent adversity only groups. In contrast, the recent adversity only group exhibited significantly slower RTs and more errors than the distant adversity and no adversity groups. These results suggest an emotion and executive control pathway by which both the benefits and negative effects of adversity may be conferred. Results also highlight the importance of time in assessing the impact of adversity.