Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Cultural Scripts Guide Recall of Intensely Positive Life Events

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Cultural Scripts Guide Recall of Intensely Positive Life Events

Article excerpt

In four studies, we examined the temporal distribution of positive and negative memories of momentous life events. College students and middle-aged adults reported events occurring from the ages of 8 to 18 years in which they had felt especially good or especially bad about themselves. Distributions of positive memories showed a marked peak at ages 17 and 18. In contrast, distributions of negative memories were relatively flat. These patterns were consistent for males and females and for younger and older adults. Content analyses indicated that a substantial proportion of positive memories from late adolescence described culturally prescribed landmark events surrounding the major life transition from high school to college. When the participants were asked for recollections from life periods that lack obvious age-linked milestone events, age distributions of positive and negative memories were similar. The results support and extend Berntsen and Rubin's (2004) conclusion that cultural expectations, or life scripts, organize recall of positive, but not negative, events.

Three decades ago, most empirical research on memory was conducted under carefully controlled experimental conditions. The laboratory approach has produced highly replicable and broadly applicable findings, such as primacy and recency effects in short-term memory and timedependent decay in long-term memory. In recent years, psychologists have examined memory by using increasingly diverse methodologies. One prominent contemporary approach is to examine memories of personal events experienced in the context of everyday activities, rather than in cognitive psychology laboratories (e.g., Neisser, 1982; Pillemer, 1998; Rubin, 1986, 1996). Despite a lack of experimental control over encoding conditions and memory content, studies in which everyday memory has been examined also have generated robust findings. In particular, several investigators have examined age distributions of personal memories over the life span and have identified striking temporal regularities.

One robust temporal pattern involves what has come to be known as the reminiscence bump. Rubin and colleagues have used a variety of methodologies to elicit personal memories from middle-aged and older adults, and they consistently have found a disproportionate number of remembered events that occurred between the ages of 10 and 30 years (e.g., Rubin, Rahhal, & Poon, 1998). Memory incidence typically rises sharply during childhood and adolescence, peaks in late adolescence or early adulthood, and then declines. This reminiscence bump is apparent across cultures, including the United States, England, Japan, China, and Bangladesh (Conway, Wang, Hanyu, & Haque, 2005). Berntsen and Rubin (2002) summarized the pattern of results as follows: "For people over the age of 40, information encoded during adolescence and early adulthood is remembered better than information encountered in the surrounding periods of life" (p. 637). A number of theoretical explanations have been offered for the bump, including the novel, transitional, and memorable nature of events occurring during adolescence and early adulthood, the rapid development of personal identity and a coherent autobiographical life story at this time, and cultural expectations, or life scripts, that identify ages 15-30 as the period within which landmark personal events are most likely to occur (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Rubin étal., 1998).

Recent research has provided a basis for evaluating these alternative explanations. An elegant series of studies by Berntsen and Rubin provides strong support for culturally shared life scripts as an organizing force contributing to the reminiscence bump. Berntsen and Rubin (2002) included memory questions in a large-scale Danish interview study. Adult participants were asked to remember an extremely happy, sad, important, or traumatic memory and to report their age at the time of the event. …

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