Cognitive Psychology Class Notes > Autobiographical Memory


  • memory for events and issues related to yourself
  • includes memories for specific experiences and memory for the personal facts of one's life
  • Remembering buying your first car --> specific experience
  • Do you own a car --> personal fact
  • Rubin (1987):
  • we remember more about the periods in time that defines us as people

Characteristics of Autobiographical Memory:

  • long-term recollection of general features of an event
  • interpretations of an event
  • some recall of a few specific details of an event
  • Memory of your wedding day...
  • What happened? --> memory for general features and specific details
  • What was it like? --> interpretation

Types of Autobiographical Memory:

  • personal memory:
    • image-based representation of a single unrepeated event
  • memory of your wedding day
  • autobiographical fact:
  • identical to personal memory, except that the memory is not image-based
  • being able to answer 'yes' to 'Are you married?'
  • generic personal memory:
  • similar to a personal memory, except that the event is repeated or a series of similar events occur and are represented in a more abstract form
  • getting married for the 5th time --> memory of any particular wedding might be difficult to date exactly and might not contain many distinguishing features

Vividness of Autobiographical Memories: Flashbulb Memories

  • memory for the situation in which you first learned of a very surprising and emotionally arousing event
  • typically memories of events of national or international significance
  • the assasination of JFK
  • the assasination of MLK
  • the Challenger explosion
  • the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial
  • Six 'Cannonical' Categories of Information in Flashbulb Memories (Brown & Kulik, 1977):

[STUDENTS CAN TRY THIS AT HOME!! --> ask family members, friends to write an account of some flashbulb memory]

  • place - where were you?
  • ongoing event - what were you doing?
  • informant - who told you / how did you find out?
  • affect in others
  • own affect
  • aftermath
  • Brown's account of the assasination of JFK:
  • I was on the telephone with Miss Johnson, the Dean's secretary, about some departmental business. Suddenly, she broke in with: 'Excuse me a moment; everyone is excited about something. What? Mr. Kennedy has been shot!' We hung up, I opened my door to hear further news, as it came in, and then resumed my work on some forgotton business that 'had to be finished' that day.
  • Kuliki's account of the assisnation of JFK:
  • I was seated in a sixth-grade music class, and over the intercom I was told that the president had been shot. At first, everone just looked at each other. Then the class started yelling, and the music teacher tried to calm everyone down. About ten minutes later I heard over the intercom that Kennedy had died and that everyone should return to their homeroom. I remember that when I got to my homeroom, my teacher was crying and everyone was standing in a state of shock. They told us to go home.
  • Major Determinants of Flashbulb Memories:
  • high level of surprise
  • high level of emotional arousal
  • consequentiality
  • more likely to be rehearsed

Criticisms of Flashbulb Memories:

  • veridicality - cannot take accounts at face value as being accurate
  • Neisser's (1982) erroneous flashbulb memory of Pearl Harbor:
  • For many years I have remembered how I heard of the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on the day before my thirteenth birthday. I recall sitting in the living room of our house -- we only lived in that house for one year, but I remember it well -- listening to a baseball game on the radio. The game was interrupted by an announcement of the attack, and I rushed upstairs to tell my mother. This memory has been so clear for so long that I never confronted its inherent absurdity until last year: no one broadcasts baseball games in December!
  • are memories accurate representations of what truly occurred, or are they a result of rehearsal?

Are Autobiographical Memories "True"?

  • autobiographical memories may be accurate without being literal
  • autobiographical memories may represent personal meaning of an event at the expense of accuracy
  • accuracy of personal memories (Field, 1981):
  • .88 correlation for factual information among family members
  • .43 correlation for emotions and attitudes

What do Autobiographical Memories Represent?

  • information about the location of an event (usually inferred)
  • temporal information about the date of occurrence of an event (usually inferred)
  • primarily interpretations about an event and not all facts (see above for what is inferred based on interpretations of events)
  • factual information is in the form of actors, actions, and locations
  • context-specific sensory and perceptual attributes are always present
  • imagery is frequently present
  • the experience of remembering is always present
  • duration of the memory can last for years