|| Autobiographical Memory: Remembering What and Remembering When
||Charles P. Thompson, John J. Skowronski, Steen F. Larsen, and Andrew
||Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., ©1996
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
10 Industrial Avenue
Mahwah, NJ 07430-2262
Human memory is one of the earliest areas of systematic psychological study
beginning with the first psychological laboratories in the 19th century.
Memory remains an important and controversial arena. In child abuse allegations
the memory of individuals is a major issue since all claims of past abusive
experiences depend upon memory capacity to establish what happened. This
book is specifically aimed at the type of memory, autobiographical, that
is involved in assessing the facticity of claimed prior events.
In this 238-page book, the authors have done a careful and well-designed
job of teasing out variables and parameters that are of crucial interest
and may often be misunderstood. The study is based upon a systematic program
of keeping diaries in which one personal event was recorded each day. The
sample is mainly college students, almost 450 diaries, ranging from 10 weeks
to 30 months in duration. The diaries were tested on a weekly basis for
how well the unique event was remembered and an estimate of when the event
occurred. Multiple linear regression analysis was used to produce considerable
The most important findings about memory to come out of this project are
that memories degrade with lengthening retention intervals. The decline
is somewhat sharper in short retention intervals than in longer intervals.
Memory for what happened becomes increasingly reconstructive as the retention
interval lengthens. Temporal judgments as to when something happened are
highly reconstructive, even for recent events.
Characteristics of the events are related to the event memories. Events
in which the individual participated rather than observed are somewhat better
recalled. Events more involving are recalled better. The intensity of the
event also affected recall, and pleasant events are recalled better than
unpleasant events. For events involving others, however, there is no advantage
for pleasant events but rather an advantage for unpleasant events. The subjects'
predictions of their memories showed only a small amount of the variance
that was accounted for. There is only an imperfect insight into one's own
The data show that retrospective accounts of autobiographical memory must
be dealt with cautiously. Autobiographical memory cannot be trusted as accurate
without taking into consideration the various factors that may affect recollections.
These cautions apply to persons who, like the sample, have reached early
adulthood and have, for all practical purposes, fully developed adult memory
functions. Children who are still in the process of learning how to have
memories may be even less able to provide trustworthy autobiographical accounts.
There is also nothing in these findings that can be used to support concepts
such as repression or any other proposed mechanism by which personally experienced
events can become unavailable to ordinary memory processes.
Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.