The Mental Representation of Trait and Autobiographical Knowledge about the Self

The Mental Representation of Trait and Autobiographical Knowledge about the Self

The Mental Representation of Trait and Autobiographical Knowledge about the Self

The Mental Representation of Trait and Autobiographical Knowledge about the Self


If there is one topic on which we all are experts, it is ourselves. Psychologists depend upon this expertise, as asking people questions about themselves is an important means by which they gather the data that provide much of the evidence for psychological theory. Personal recollections play an important role in clinical theorizing; people's thoughts, feelings, and beliefs provide the principal data for attitudinal research; and judgments of one's traits and descriptions of one's goals and motivations are essential for the study of personality. Yet despite their long dependence on self-report data, psychologists know very little about this basic resource and the processes that govern it. In spite of the importance of the self as a concept in psychology, virtually no empirically-tested representational models of self-knowledge can be found. Recently, however, several theoretical accounts of the representation of self-knowledge have been proposed. These models have been concerned primarily with the factors underlying a particular type of self knowledge -- our trait conceptions of ourselves. The models all share the starting assumption that the source of our knowledge of the traits that describe us is memory for our past behavior.

The lead article in this volume reviews the available models of the processes underlying trait self-descriptiveness judgments. Although these models appear quite different in their basic representational assumptions, exemplar and abstraction models sometimes are difficult to distinguish experimentally. Presenting a series of studies using several new techniques which the authors believe are effective for assessing whether people recruit specific exemplars or abstract trait summaries when making trait judgments about themselves, they conclude that specific behavioral exemplars play a far smaller role in the representation of trait knowledge than previously has been assumed. Finally, the limitations of social cognition paradigms as methods for studying the representation of long-term social knowledge are discussed, and the implications of the research for both existing and future social psychological research are explored.


This is the fifth volume of the Advances in Social Cognition series. From its inception, the purpose of the series has been to present and evaluate new theoretical advances in all areas of social cognition and information processing. An entire volume is devoted to each theory, thus allowing it to be evaluated from a variety of perspectives and permitting its implications for a wide range of issues to be considered.

The series reflects the two major characteristics of social cognition: the high level of activity in the field and the interstitial nature of the work. Each volume contains a target chapter that is chosen because it is timely in its application, novel in its approach, and precise in its explication. This is then followed by a set of companion chapters that examine the theoretical and empirical issues the target chapter has raised. These latter chapters are written by authors with diverse theoretical orientations, representing different disciplines within psychology and, in some cases, entirely different disciplines. Target authors are then given the opportunity to respond to the comments and criticisms of their work, and to examine the ideas conveyed in the companion chapters in light of their own. The dialogue created by such a format is highly unusual but, we believe, extremely beneficial to the field.

Public debates are interesting and informative but they require a special group of people if they are to be productive. In this respect, we want to thank the many people who agreed to participate in the project. Most of all, we owe a considerable debt to Stan Klein and Judith Loftus. Their work represents some of the most sophisticated and carefully constructed that social cognition has to offer. In their target article, Klein and Loftus consider several ways in which trait and . . .

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