Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Looking Back across the Life Span: A Life Story Account of the Reminiscence Bump

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Looking Back across the Life Span: A Life Story Account of the Reminiscence Bump

Article excerpt

The reminiscence bump is a robust finding in the autobiographical memory literature: Adults recall more events from the second and third decades of life than from other periods. Berntsen and Rubin (2004; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003) proposed a life script account of the reminiscence bump. We extend the life script account by taking a theory-based, life span developmental approach, proposing a life story account for the bump. This account predicts that events in the reminiscence bump are characterized not only by positive valence, but also by high perceived control and high perceived influence on later development. Predictions from the life story account were confirmed in analyses of 3,541 life events collected from 659 participants 50-90 years of age. Only highperceived-control positive events showed a reminiscence bump, and these events were rated as more influential on later development than were events showing any other combination of valence and perceived control. Findings are discussed in terms of a theoretical extension of the life script account embracing (1) principles of life span development and (2) the personal creation of a life story that helps to organize autobiographical memory.

One of the most robust findings in the autobiographical memory literature is that people recall a larger number of events from the second and third decades of their life than from other periods. This effect, the reminiscence bump (Rubin, Wetzler, & Nebes, 1986), has been found using a variety of memory materials (e.g., Cohen & Faulkner, 1988; Crovitz & Schiffrnan, 1974; de Vries & Watt, 1996; Fromholt & Larsen, 1991,1992). Thus, it occurs relatively independently of how participants are asked to recall events.1 Several accounts of why life event data produce this particular pattern have been proposed (e.g., Fitzgerald, 1996; Rubin, Rahhal, & Poon, 1998).

A recent study showed a reminiscence bump for people's memories of their happiest, but not of their saddest or most traumatic, life events (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002). This demonstration that only positive memories show me bump has moved theorizing in this area forward. Berntsen and Rubin (2002) compared the efficacy of five previously proposed theoretical accounts (i.e., cognitive processing, biological/maturational, actual event frequency, narrative/ identity, and life script) for explaining why a reminiscence bump occurs when happy events are recalled, but not for sad and traumatic events. Berntsen and Rubin (2002, 2004) argued that that a life script account best explains their data. The life script account suggests that the bump is a product of a particular strategy for searching memory when one's life is recalled. It assumes that people have an internalized culturally based script of the events that make up an expected, skeletal life course; this script acts as a template for the recall of life events in association with each life phase. According to this account, happy events are scripted as frequent in late adolescence/young adulthood (i.e., the bump years). Rubin and Berntsen (2003) argued that negative events are not part of life scripts and, therefore, follow a monotonically decreasing retention function, instead of a reminiscence bump (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002, 2004). Berntsen and Rubin (2004) showed that when participants generate normative life scripts, the scripted events are largely positive and show a bump in the second and third life decades. Thus, they suggest that the reminiscence bump for happy events is the product of the use of a retrieval strategy, the life script, for recalling life events.

We extend the life script account of the reminiscence bump into a life story account embracing life span developmental theory (e.g., Havighurst, 1952; Levinson, 1986; Neugarten, 1968), which offers several building blocks for a more explanatory account of the reminiscence bump. In short, the life story account argues that the events in the reminiscence bump are retrieved not only because they are cued by normative life scripts, but also because they are individually memorable in as much as (1) the person has faced the developmental task of taking control of his or her life and (2) the individual later views these events as having had a strong influence on who he or she has become. …

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