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The specificity and organisation of autobiographical memories

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Previous research suggests that autobiographical memories are over-general and are organised according to life periods. One experiment assessed the specificity and organisation of autobiographical memory by manipulating two variables. The retrieval cues were either a set of three words (a theme, a time period, and an emotional valence) or a short narrative that included a specific theme, time period, and emotional valence. The instructions either encouraged the participants to respond as though they were conversing with a friend (social instructions) or did not specify a target audience (standard instructions). Narrative cues and standard instructions elicited more specific responses than word cues and social instructions, respectively. Whereas word cues elicited memories that were most likely to match the cues in terms of time period, narrative cues elicited memories that were most likely to match the cues in terms of theme. These data suggest that previous research underestimated the specificity of the autobiographical knowledge base and overestimated the importance of temporally defined life periods for organising autobiographical memory. Previous conclusions regarding the specificity and organisation of autobiographical memory may reflect the structure of autobiographical narratives and the methodologies used to collect such narratives rather than the content of autobiographical memory itself.
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Keywords: Autobiographical memory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Psychology, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, USA 2: Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Amherst, MA, USA

Publication date: November 1, 2012

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