Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Culture, Gender, and the First Memories of Black and White American Students

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Culture, Gender, and the First Memories of Black and White American Students

Article excerpt

A pattern of delayed offset of childhood amnesia in Asian cultures has been attributed to the influence of the collectivist orientation of these cultures. To explore the generality of this finding, black and white American students were compared in two studies. A culture × gender interaction was observed in both studies; black women were approximately 11-16 months older at the time of their first memory than were black men, white women, and white men. In the second study, analyses of memory content indicated that black women were least likely to report personal experiences and most likely to report experiences from family or wider social contexts. Overall, black participants rated their memories as more vivid, but there were culture × gender interactions for ratings of emotional intensity and coherence. We consider multiple influences on age at first memory, including distal influences, gender themes in self-construal, and proximal influences on search criteria.

Euro-American adolescents tend to report that they were younger at the time of their first memories than do Asian adolescents. This result has been attributed to a delayed offset of childhood amnesia in collectivist Asian cultures such as China and Korea. The generality of this finding is limited, however, because Asian cultures are the only collectivist cultures studied. African and Middle Eastern cultures are examples of collectivist cultures that have not been studied. Because contemporary African- American culture is believed to have maintained at least some aspects of collectivism, the comparison of African- American and Euro-American cultures may be useful for understanding cultural influences. This article reports two studies providing the first systematic effort to study childhood amnesia in black and white college students. Although the pattern of cultural differences in age at first memory is more complex than originally anticipated, the results of the two studies replicate each other and provide an important complement to earlier studies. In this introduction, we review the status of cross-cultural work in the area of childhood amnesia to provide the groundwork for the comparison of black and white Americans.

The basic phenomenon of childhood amnesia is a welldocumented lack of memories from the earliest childhood years (Henri & Henri, 1898), even though children possess basic memory skills at birth (Bauer, 2007). The core issue in childhood amnesia research has become why memories from early childhood are retained at a far lower rate than one would expect on the basis of traditional memory models and retention data (Rubin & Wenzel, 1996). Once children reach the age of 6 years, the average age for reported first memories is 3.5 years. The proportion of memories recalled that occur between 3.5 and 7 or 8 years of age is also lower than expected (Bauer, Burch, Scholin, & Guler, 2007; Bruce, Dolan, & Phillips-Grant, 2000; Fitzgerald, 1991; Kihlstrom & Harackiewicz, 1982; C. Peterson, Grant, & Boland, 2005).

Our concern is with the development of autobiographical memory in cultural contexts. In this vein, Nelson and her colleagues (Nelson, 1986; Nelson & Fivush, 2000, 2004) developed a sociocultural perspective on memory development termed memory socialization. The socialization of memory (Nelson & Fivush, 2000) occurs in the home, the preschool, and the playground. Such diverse origins produce diverse outcomes in autobiographical memory and concepts of the self. Studies of cultural variability suggest that not all cultures work with the same script or goals for memory socialization. Furthermore, not everyone in a given culture has the same scripts or memory goals (Wang, 2006).

The dialogues between parents and children have long been of interest to developmental psychologists (Miller, Potts, Fung, Hoogstra, & Liang, 1990; Nelson, 1986). Within the context of middle-class America, Fivush and her colleagues conducted research on memory development and mother-child dialogues about past events. …

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