Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Directed Forgetting of Autobiographical Events

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Directed Forgetting of Autobiographical Events

Article excerpt

Two diary experiments demonstrated directed forgetting (DF) of autobiographical events, previously observed only for less complex memory items. Using a 2-week diary paradigm, we compared recall between a group of participants who were directed to forget Week 1 memories (forget group) and a group who did not receive a forget instruction (remember group). In Experiment 1, the forget group remembered fewer items from Week 1 than did the remember group. The effect was observed for negative and positive valence events, as well as for high and low emotional intensity events. The effect was replicated in Experiment 2 despite a memorable holiday (Valentine's Day) that occurred during the manipulation week. Forget participants remembered fewer low emotional intensity items in Experiment 2. We conclude that intentional forgetting is a plausible explanation for the loss of some autobiographical memories.

Can a person deliberately forget an autobiographical event? Intentional forgetting has often been used to explain the loss of autobiographical memories, especially memories for unpleasant or disturbing events (e.g., McNally, Clancy, & Schacter, 2001). In fact, Freud's notion of repression, now regarded as an unconscious process, originally involved deliberate thought avoidance (Breuer & Freud, 1893-1895/1955). Moreover, there is a long history of empirical evidence for deliberate forgetting of some kinds of memories (for reviews, see Bjork, 1998; Golding & Long, 1998; Golding & MacLeod, 1998; Johnson, 1994; MacLeod, 1998). Directed forgetting (DF), or intentional forgetting, has been found with a wide range of stimuli, including trigrams (Weiner, 1968; Weiner & Reed, 1969), digits (Brown, 1954), word pairs (Reitman, Malin, Bjork, & Higman, 1973), categorized words (MacLeod, 1975), pictures (Basden & Basden, 1996), sentences (Geiselman, 1974), and even navigation instructions (Golding & Keenan, 1985). However, whether it is reasonable to generalize from such stimuli to autobiographical events is debatable. The work presented here was undertaken to directly address that issue.

We will begin with some background. In DF experiments, there are two basic methods for delivering the forget cue: the item method and the list method. In the item method, participants are instructed to either forget or remember each item immediately after it has been presented. Our study was modeled on the alternative list method. In the typical list method experiment, participants are presented with a list of memory items, one at a time. Midway through the presentation of the list, some of the participants (the forget group) are told to forget the previous items (F-items). There is usually a cover story that accompanies this instruction-for instance, that first-half items were merely practice or that the experimenter made a mistake. The rest of the participants are given an inconsequential instruction midway through the list (the remember group) and, hence, attempt to remember first-half items (R-items) for the duration of the experiment. For both groups, items presented after the midlist cue (second-half items) are to be remembered for the upcoming test. Finally, all the participants are tested on the entire list.

Two effects of DF have been observed with the list method. First, more second-half items are recalled by forget than by remember participants. Increased recall of second-half items in the forget condition is usually thought to be a function of reduced proactive interference by previously encoded information. The memory load for forget participants is half that for those in the remember group, who must maintain both list halves. The second effect observed with DF is the reduction in recall for F-items. When participants are asked to recall all items, fewer F-items are recalled by the forget group than comparable items recalled by the remember group. In other words, people who are told to forget a subset of memory items apparently do. …

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