Why I Remember That: The Influence of Contextual Factors on Beliefs about Everyday Memory

Article excerpt

In the present study, we examined the role of contextual factors in beliefs about remembering personal experiences. Specifically, we examined why individuals think that they remember experiences in everyday life and whether the reasons for remembering varied as a function of recall context, memory theme, and culture. In Experiment 1, we examined young adults' reported memories in two hypothetical contexts. In Experiment 2, memories were reported in response to cue words in European American and Chinese young adults. The results indicated that social sharing contexts appeared to favor social functions, whereas private reminiscence contexts tended to favor nonfunctional reasons for remembering and, to a lesser extent, directive functions. The European Americans reported more functional reasons for remembering, whereas the Chinese were more likely to report external cues as a reason for remembering. Finally, self functions were rarely reported. The results are interpreted in light of theories of memory functions and the role of contextual factors on remembering.

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Remembering personal experiences-from recalling a particularly delicious meal when planning a dinner out to commiserating about frustrating experiences with a colleague over coffee to reminiscing about a childhood family vacation while reviewing old photos-is a ubiquitous part of human experience. Given the ubiquity of these autobiographical memories, theorists have assumed that such memories must be functional; that is, they must be adaptive and serve goals in everyday life (e.g., Baddeley, 1988; Bluck, 2009; Bruce, 1985, 1989; Nelson, 1993; Pillemer, 1992). Theorists from a variety of domains, including clinical, developmental, social, and cognitive psychology, have suggested a number of potential functions of autobiographical memory. In general, the various functions of autobiographical memory can be classified into three broad classes (for a review, see Bluck & Alea, 2002). Social functions include using autobiographical memories as a conversational tool and a means of building and maintaining relationships with others. Directive functions include using autobiographical memories to solve problems, plan future actions, and learn lessons. Self functions include using autobiographical memories for identity building, maintaining self-continuity, positive self-evaluation, and self-regulation.

Empirical investigations of the functions of autobiographical remembering often examine the consequences of remembering events in particular ways. For example, adults who report more specific and self-focused narratives of past experiences also report more self-focused and positive self-concepts (Gur-Yaish & Wang, 2006; Wang, 2001, 2008), suggesting that autobiographical memory may be important for defining the self. Another approach to studying the functions of remembering is to examine narratives of past events or memories discussed in conversational contexts or told to researchers and then to utilize content analysis to identify functional themes in the narratives (e.g., Pasupathi, Lucas, & Coombs, 2002; Pillemer, 1998; Wang, 2004; Wong & Watt, 1991). For example, Pasupathi et al. (2002) examined conversations among married couples and coded functions-such as self-evaluation, planning, or explaining oneself-on the basis of the content of the conversations. For instance, the statement "I normally don't do things like that" would be coded as self-explanation.

Importantly, memory may be useful and adaptive in the manner in which theorists suggest, yet such adaptivity need not necessarily reflect memory's being used in a conscious, deliberate, and goal-directed way (see also Bluck & Alea, 2002; Bluck, Alea, Habermas, & Rubin, 2005; Bruce, 1989; Kulkofsky & Koh, 2009; and Pillemer, 2009, for similar arguments). Fewer direct examinations have been performed on individuals' beliefs about the usefulness of remembering everyday experiences. …