IPT Book Reviews

Title: Autobiographical Memory: Remembering What and Remembering When
Authors: Charles P. Thompson, John J. Skowronski, Steen F. Larsen, and Andrew L. Betz
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1996

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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$27.50 (c)

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 analytic power.

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 memories.

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.

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