The Lollipop Effect

lollipop pic

Do you ever have those moments or even days where everything seems to be going wrong all at once? Where everything feels like it is a mess and life is out of control? Maybe it has even been weeks and you are sick of it?

Surprisingly there may actually be a logical explanation for it and it may have less to do with what is actually going on around you and more about how the brain is wired to store and manage information. You may be experiencing something called mood memory congruence or what I refer to as the “lollipop effect”. While getting through it can be a process it is well worth exploring of this is something that resonates with you. Recognizing when this is happening can help change your day and perspective from dread and withdrawal to coping and moving forward.

To understand how it can work, picture the child at the grocery store. The mother tells her that she can’t have the candy. All of a sudden everything sad that has ever happened comes to her mind. From her teddy bear being torn, the scratch on her knee, to the friend that didn’t want to come out and play, and the lollipop she couldn’t get at the store last week. She says “you never let me have anything… I hate you… I hate everything…”. Inevitably uncontrollable crying and tantrum ensues. She falls to the ground and kicks and screams.

While this may seem like an isolated childish scene it only changes in expression as we age, it doesn’t necessarily go away. As we get older and learn how to “behave” and what is acceptable socially, we stop doing what we did as a child, but we can still feel devastated at a loss or when there is an inability to get what we want. The brain creates associations of those moods and memories which can later play a role in how we feel when things go wrong again. The brain stores our moods (good or bad) in categories of associations.

If we haven’t been taught how to self-soothe or navigate those difficult experiences and feelings in a more effective and positive way, we do the best we know to do even as adults. Depending on our personality and inclination to be more positive or negative, glass half full or half empty, we can also be more prone to choose one over the other. Since we can no longer throw a tantrum or yell at mom or dad, we let our mind run wild and allow it to do what it does automatically. Which is to connect the dots of what is in one and the same category, the “bad or sad mood”.

Unfortunately, we can get stuck in a cycle of bad/sad mood memories. Every time something bad happens it then activates that mood and it is then much easier for the brain to also access what is associated with that mood – memories, regardless of when those occurred. This can result in the brain prompting thoughts like “nothing ever works out for me… I never get a break… I have the worst luck… last week this or that happened, now this”. This means, anything and everything that has gone wrong in life regardless of timelines comes to mind.

Beyond the bad feelings that go along with this, what is worse is that it can also block our ability to see a way out, to see anything good in life. If this goes on for extended periods of time it can trap us and create what I like to refer to as a “brain-ditch”. Neurological pathways that have developed a depth that is more easily accessible by the brain than other pathways to different, and more positive thoughts. The pathway to those positive experiences that can contradict the negative. Whatever is positive and that can help us problem-solve is then hidden from our perceptions simply because of how mood is stored and activated[1][2].

The great part is that we can process through this pit to develop healthier and more effective “brain-ditches” by deliberation. By identifying what activated the mood slump in current moment and refocus that energy and thoughts on the positive. Having something in mind each morning to steer by or a list of positive life experiences and breaks to reference. It can free up cognitive processes and reduce stress to discover the best solutions to move you forward in a more positive way. Only a deliberate decision to think positively can get you out of the pit.

So, if you are having one of those days or even weeks where everything seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket, and nothing ever works out for you, take a step back to gauge the reality of those thoughts. Are your mood memory associations taking you for a ride through the past and using those to paint a gloomy picture of the future, or is it a present reality? What would be on your list of positive breaks and good experiences? Try to jot some good things down no matter how small to remind yourself with later. Create new connections for yourself between memories and mood. Even if that means going out to buy yourself a lollipop!


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[1] Baron, Byrne, & Branscombe. (2006). Social psychology (11th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Reeve, M. (2015). Understanding motivation and emotion (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[2] Christodoulou & Burke. (2015). Mood congruity and episodic memory in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, p. 221-229.

Rusting & DeHart. (2000). Retrieving Positive Memories to Regulate Negative Mood: Consequences for Mood-Congruent Memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), p. 737-752.