SKOWRONSKIAND WALKERDESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS
HOW DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
EVENTS CAN AFFECT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
John J. Skowronski
Northern Illinois University
W. Richard Walker
Winston-Salem State University
In this article we argue that social discourse can affect the structure and content
of autobiographical memory. In making this argument, we review literature
documenting the impact of social factors, including culture, social roles, and
social disclosure frequency, on aspects of autobiographical memory. We also
describe several social norms that govern social discourse and speculate about
the effect that such norms might have on autobiographical memory. In addi-
tion, we review the mental structures and processes that might serve to mediate
the relation between social discourse and autobiographical memory and offer
suggestions about how both social and cognitive factors might be integrated
into a common model accounting for autobiographical memory.
Although autobiographical memory research had always captured the
interest of a few researchers (e.g., Cason, 1932; Colegrove, 1983/1899;
Waldfogel, 1948), the pace of research into this topic accelerated in the
late 1970s and early 1980s. Researchers who had a background in cogni
tive or experimental psychology published many of the important stud
ies during this time (Linton, 1986; Neisser, 1978; Thompson, 1982;
Wagenaar, 1986). Consequently, the variables of interest (e.g., delay, re
hearsal) that were explored in these studies often focused on variables
that are typically important to cognitive psychologists. The influence of
cognitive psychology continues to manifest itself in much of the contem
Social Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 5, 2004, pp. 555-590
We would like to thank Charles P. Thompson, Jeffrey A. Gibbons, and Rodney J. Vogl
for their comments made throughout the course of this project.
Address correspondence to John J. Skowronski, Department of Psychology, Northern
Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115; E-mail: email@example.com.
porary theory and research that explores autobiographical memory
(e.g., Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).
However, even within cognitive psychology there has been a consis
tent, albeit low-level, interest in how variables that tend to be of primary
interest to social psychologists affect autobiographical memory. For ex
ample, Bartlett’s classic research into memory distortion (1932; for a re
cent update, see Bergman & Roediger, 1999) grew out of his earlier
interest (1923) in social determinants of remembering and forgetting.
Similarly, Loftus’s well-known research on the misinformation effect
(e.g., Loftus, 1975; Loftus & Loftus, 1980) explored how socially trans
mitted information conveyed after an event has occurred can cause dis
tortion in the event memory. Despite its cognitive psychology origins,
Betz, Skowronski, and Ostrom (1996) argued that such research can eas
ily be viewed through the lens of social psychology. Adopting such a
perspective suggests that classic social psychology persuasion variables
such as the credibility of the speaker, the plausibility of the information,
and the extent to which the post-event information is consensually
shared can work to consolidate or distort event memories (also see
Hoffman, Granhag, Kwong See, & Loftus, 2001; Roediger, Meade, &
Bergman, 2001). For example, recent research shows that although peo-
ple can be persuaded to falsely “recall” fictitious autobiographical
events, the plausibility of the event influences the probability that the
event will be falsely recalled (Mazzoni, Loftus, & Kirsch, 2001;
McDermott & Roediger, 1998; Roediger, et al., 2001; Roediger &
Moreover, social psychologistsdidnotentirelyyield the field to cogni-
tive psychologists in their exploration of how these social variables af
fected autobiographical memory. Some social psychologists, such as
Mike Ross, conducted influential research during this seminal period.
Ross’searly autobiographical memory studies werestimulated by social
psychologists’ interest in the attitude-behavior relationship and ex
plored how attitudes might alter recollections of behavior (e.g., Ross,
McFarland, & Fletcher, 1981). At about the same time, Greenwald (1980)
published an influential article on the “totalitarian ego” in which he out
lined how the self-concept consists of a number of interrelated knowl
edge structures that, in conjunction with various motivations, served to
direct information processing in such a way as to bias the content of
The linkage between social and cognitive psychology in this area is
further emphasized by the fact that the relation between social interac
tion and autobiographical memory has emerged as a primary theme in
autobiographical memory research. For example, influenced by think
ers such as Mead (1934) and by the social-developmental movement
556 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
epitomized by Vygotsky (1962), some researchers suggest that
mother-child interaction is crucial to the development of autobiographi
cal memory (for a review, see Reese, 2002). Some researchers also sug
gest that the ability to describe autobiographical memories to others is a
hallmark in the development of the self (Nelson & Fivush, 2000). Related
research explores cross-cultural differences in the kinds of autobio
graphical events that are recalled (Leichtman, Wang, & Pillemer, 2003).
The origins of these differences are again thought to emerge from early
mother-child interactions: Mothers in different cultures are thought to
encourage their children torecall different kinds of events (Wang, 2001).
Personality researchers have also explored how elements of social in
teractions might be related to autobiographical memory. Some research
explores the narratives that people use to describe their lives to others.
This research focuses on the meaning that is derived from described life
events and how that meaning can be used to construct or modify the self
(Barclay, 1996; McAdams, 2001; Singer & Bluck, 2001).
Researchers in health psychology and in clinical and counseling psy-
chology have also been interested in the relation between social interac-
tions and autobiographical memory. One of the areas of extreme
controversy in psychology is the veracity of so-called “recovered memo-
ries” and the extent to which therapists can “plant” such memories (Lof-
tus, 1993; Nadel & Jacobs, 1998). Research now suggests that although
some “recovered memories” do, indeed, reflect memory for seemingly
forgotten events, other “recovered memories” are fabrications planted
by clinicians (or researchers; see Ceci & Loftus, 1994) during social inter-
actions (see Conway, 1997). Other clinical and health psychology re
search has focused on how social interactions affect the way that people
feel about their memories. For example, a number of studies have shown
that while disclosure of negative events to others might have negative
short-term effects, in the long term, such disclosure generally reduces
the negative feelings that typically accompany the recall of such events
(e.g., Neiderhoffer & Pennebaker, 2002).
One intriguing aspect of this research is that much of the early work
that explored the impact of social interaction on autobiographical mem
ory originated in areas outside of social psychology. This state of affairs
is a bit puzzling given that, as Middleton and Edwards (1990) noted, the
idea that memory can be, in part, a collective phenomenon has a rela
tively long intellectual history. For example, the French sociologist
Durkheim (1895/1982) and his student Halbwachs (1951/1980) were
proponents of this collectivist position. The influence of these intellec
tual trailblazers is reflected in Middleton and Edwards’s (1990) edited
volume, Collective Remembering. That volume presented both theorizing
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 557
about the relation between social interaction and memory and empirical
data that explore this relation.
Explorations of the relationship between social interactions and auto
biographical memory have recently come from several different sources
within social psychology. One research theme has focused on group
memory, exploring such questions as how, when, and why the collective
memory of groups tends to be superior to the recall of single individuals
(Hinsz, 1990) and how common knowledge and information sharing af
fect the memory performance of groups (Tindale & Sheffey, 2002). A sec
ond theme explores the phenomenon of transactive memory
(Hollingshead, 1998, 2001; Wegner, Erber, & Raymond, 1991). This re
search suggests, among other things, that peoples’ roles in a relationship
help to determine what they remember and what they forget (e.g., a
wife’s role might be to remember everyone’s birth date, while a hus
band’s role might be to remember the car tune-up schedule). A third
theme in the research emphasizes how public discussions might mirror
mental processes that are important to remembering and forgetting. For
example, research by Ruscher and Hammer (1994) suggests that some
discussions with others tend to focus on information that is related to a
stigma and that such discussion can promote subsequent memory for
stigma-related information. These discussions are thought to mirror the
mental processes that affect memory for stereotype-relevant informa-
tion (Ford & Stangor, 1992; Sherman, 1996). Indeed, Pasupathi (2001)
has made a broader argument, suggesting that discussions of autobio-
graphical events serve to organize individual events and imbed those
events into a personal narrative. In this view, social discourse is key
factor in determining how (and if) people remember particular events.
GOALS OF THE PRESENT ARTICLE
One goal of the present article is to briefly review and summarize some
of the research that has explored relations between social interaction and
autobiographical memory. We believe that this review and summary is
helpful in at least two ways. First, it makes the point to the non-expert
that there is much more of this kind of research taking place than might
previously have been believed. Second, it helps researchers who explore
social influences on memory to keep track of the research going on in re
lated disciplines. The additional research that we present in the remain
der of this article will continue to work toward this goal.
One additional purpose of this article will be to focus on the extent to
which a speaker’s description of an event to others (or non-communica
tion of an event) affects the speaker’s later memory for that event. Specif
ically, we will focus on three issues. The first issue is the extent to which
558 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
people rehearse autobiographical events for social reasons relative to
the extent to which those events are rehearsed for other reasons (e.g., to
understand events). We will argue that event memories are frequently
rehearsed when disclosing events to others and that such social rehears
als may be one of the most frequent reasons for the rehearsal of
A second issue concerns the impact of those rehearsals on autobio
graphical memories. Some events are described to others—but not other
events. Some event details get included in the descriptions—but not
other details. Some details might be accurately described to others—but
other details might be distorted in the retelling. Some extra-event infor
mation (such as the statement, “he looked just like Robert Redford”)
might be included in some descriptions—but not in other descriptions.
The second issue of interest in this article concerns these biases in the
conveyance of autobiographical events and the impact of such biases.
We argue that a number of factors, including social norms and conven-
tions and self-presentational concerns, affect when one relates autobio-
graphical events to others, what is included in those descriptions, and
the manner in which those events are described. We also argue that be-
cause these social norms and self-presentational concerns alter the
“when, what, and how” of autobiographical event descriptions, and be-
cause these biased descriptions function as rehearsals of events, those
variables can ultimately have an impact on the conveyor’s later memory
for the events related in those descriptions. These memories might be af-
fectedin several ways. For example, the temporalcategory into whichan
event falls often needs to be recoded as an individual ages: The event
that happened an hour ago may be subsequently recategorized as an
event that occurred yesterday, then as occurring last week, then as oc
curring last month, and so forth. These temporal recategorizations
might be facilitated by describing the event to others. Another possible
outcome of social storytelling is that one’s tendency to retrieve events
might be altered by the contexts of social storytelling. As one recounts
the events from one’s own life, various situational cues and communica
tion goals might become linked to the autobiographical memories that
are recounted. Such cues and goals might prompt reinstatement of the
events when those goals are activated or those cues are encountered at a
later time. As events become linked with a greater number of cues, the
probability of retrieving such memories should increase. Hence,
diversity in storytelling settings and goals might also play an important
role in the extentto which an individual recalls autobiographical events.
A third general issue surrounding social rehearsals is the set of cogni
tive processes that are involved when one conveys events to others and
how these cognitive processes might affect memory for the event con
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 559
veyed. Obviously, one might expect that events that are often rehearsed
will tend to be better recalled than events that are not rehearsed. Hence,
one would also expect that events that are frequently conveyed to others
should be well recalled. However, it is possible that such social rehears
als might alter the content of the recalled events. For example, some re
trieved events have a rich sensory content, while others do not. The
accessible memory representation of autobiographical events may be
come more semantic in nature when events are frequently described to
others. Such “impoverished” memories have been referred to as autobio
graphical facts (Brewer, 1996) or repisodic memories (Neisser, 1981).
After providing a brief description of autobiographical memories and
of some characteristics of those memories, we shall elaborate on these
themes. In one section of this article we will describe recently collected
evidence suggesting that social rehearsals of autobiographical events
occur quite frequently. In a second section, we review several social
norms that govern self-descriptions and attempt to relate those norms to
some of the characteristics of autobiographical memory. In a third sec-
tion, we describe the cognitive mechanisms that may mediate the rela-
tion between the social norms affecting the communication of
autobiographical events and event recall.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORIES AND THEIR
Autobiographical memory is a term that refers to memory for self-relevant
events. The arguments that we make in this article are intended to apply
to this entire class of memories. However, we recognize that autobio
graphical memories might come in different “flavors.” For example,
Brewer (1986, 1996) argues that there are at least two different types of
autobiographical memories. These types roughly correspond to the clas
sic distinction between episodic knowledge and semantic knowledge.
For example, when recalling an individual episode or event, an individ
ual might have access to the phenomenological details of the event: its
sights, sounds, and smells. The individual might also be triggered to feel
emotions prompted by the event, as well as bodily sensations experi
enced while the event was occurring. In Brewer’s terms, an event re
called in this way would be a recollective memory. On the other hand, an
individual might recall autobiographical facts. These are events in a
person’s life that are recalled, but without accompanying sensory or
The retrieval of such event-specific knowledge can have many conse
quences. Recall of such events might allow an individual to construct
self-schemata. Those schemata can provide an individual with a sense of
560 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
cohesiveness among subsequently retrieved life events, and can affect
the encoding and storage of new life events. Recalling an event might
serve to alter a person’s mood, help the person resolve a conflict with an
other person, or solve a current problem. In short, the recollection of an
event often causes a cascade of responses, including the subsequent ac
cess of additional memories. Thus, it can be argued that autobiographi
cal memory represents the single most complex type of human memory
One of the distinctive features of autobiographical memories is that
they are often accompanied by a general sense of when the event oc
curred. This general sense of an event’s location in time emerges in esti
mates of an event’s date (Betz & Skowronski, 1997; Brewer, 1988;
Skowronski & Thompson, 1990), estimates of an event’s age
(Huttenlocher, Hedges, & Prohaska, 1992), or in judgments of the order
in which two events occurred (Skowronski, Walker, & Betz, 2003). How
ever, Thompson, Skowronski, Larsen, and Betz (1996) noted that people
often remember the “core details” of an event memory, such as what
happened and where the event took place, but misremember “periph-
eral details,” such as exactly when the event occurred. Obviously, if the
time that an event occurred is not exactly recalled, people might instead
use estimation processes to judge that time. Predictably, then, a person’s
sense of an event’s age is certainly not infallible—errors in temporal
judgments are typical. Moreover, these errors are nonrandom: There is
often a considerable amount of reconstruction that accompanies the de-
termination of the time at which an event occurred (Thompson,
Skowronski, & Betz, 1993) and such reconstruction can lead to system-
atic biases in the placement of an event in time (Ross & Wilson, 2002).
Nonetheless, most people do have a reasonable sense of time in their
memories—indeed, the loss of this sense of time and order is often the
sign of serious psychopathology (Shimamura, Janowsky, & Squire,
One of the other distinctive features of autobiographical memories is
that they are constructions that integrate information from different lev
els of specificity (Brown & Schopflocher, 1998). For example, Conway
has suggested that autobiographical memories can incorporate three
types of information: Lifetime periods, general event knowledge, and
event-specific knowledge (e.g., Anderson & Conway, 1993; Conway,
1996; Conway & Bekerian, 1987). The lifetime period, such as “when I
was in graduate school,” represents general knowledge of a period in a
person’s life. General event knowledge, such as “visits to the zoo,” rep
resents generalized knowledge that can be derived from repeated
events. Event-specific knowledge contains the details of a specific event
memory, such as “seeing the new owl exhibit at the zoo’s grand open
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 561
ing.” Information from these different levels is often integrated into a co
herent recollection. The lifetime period themes and general event
knowledge can serve as thecontextual background for the event-specific
knowledge, allowing a specific memory to be placed into proper per
spective. Conway (1996) argued that this pattern of information
integration across levels of specificity may be the defining characteristic
of autobiographical memories.
The finding that most autobiographical memories are multiply struc
tured should not overlook one important finding: Most life events are
probably not incorporated into autobiographical memory. Brewer
(1988) gave participants a beeper and asked them to record autobio
graphical events that were occurring when they were randomly paged.
This procedure obviously produced many records of relatively mun
dane life events, and people had poor recall of such events. Similar find
ings come from research indicating that neutral events are remembered
more poorly than affectively toned events (Betz & Skowronski, 1997;
Skowronski, Betz, Thompson, & Shannon, 1991; Walker, Vogl, &
Thompson, 1997). The general finding that most neutral or insignificant
events are not well remembered should surprise no one. However, the
finding does suggest that the primary function of autobiographical
memory is not to retain accurate representations of all life events. In-
stead, the primary function of autobiographical memory may be to pro-
duce a record of important events, such as events that have personal
relevance to one’s goals (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000).
EVENTS ARE OFTEN REHEARSED IN CONVERSATIONS WITH
Casual observation suggests that event descriptions might be important
to event memory simply because those descriptions are frequently com
municated. Job applicants try to impress potential employers by re
counting their positive, job-related behaviors (a job applicant might
relate the story of how her master’s thesis was her first independent pro
ject and it was published in JPSP). Spouses often share the events of the
day with each other over the dinner table (a faculty member might con
vey to her spouse the confrontation that she had with a student). On
dates, people try to “connect” with each other by relating stories about
themselves (a suitor might describe events from his past that are thought
to be informative about the suitor’s personality). When interacting with
people who are in emotional difficulty, one may try to express empathy
by relating a past event that has similar implications. People share
events that provoke laughter (a friend recounts his tale of falling into the
pond at a golf outing), tears (a family member recounts vacation events
562 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
with a sibling who died prematurely), and joy (a colleague recounts the
story of getting a paper accepted without a single revision).
Data examining the content of conversations confirms the observation
that people often relate autobiographical event descriptions to each
other in the course of those conversations (e.g., Hirst & Manier, 1996;
Hirst, Manier, & Apetroaia, 1997; Dritschel, 1991). Until recently, re
searchers had not documented the extent to which people engaged in
communication-based event rehearsals relative to non-social forms of
event rehearsal (but see Bluck, Alea, Habermas, & Rubin, in press) Such
data is seemingly important to the issue of the potential impact of social
rehearsals on communication. That is, if people think about events far
more often than they talk about them, then the possible impact of social
communications on event memory might not be worth pursuing. How
ever, if rehearsal via social communication occurs frequently enough,
then consideration of the effects of social rehearsals on autobiographical
memory might have a substantial payoff.
Recently collected data suggest that social rehearsals occur at least as
often as, and perhaps more often than, other rehearsal types (Walker,
Skowronski, Gibbons, & Vogl, 2004). For example, in each of two studies
participants were asked to list either four or six autobiographical events
that occurred within the last 6 months. After listing the events, partici-
pants were asked to estimate the number of times that they had re-
hearsed each event for one of several different reasons (e.g., to
remember the details of the events, to re-experience the emotions associ-
ated with the events, to better understand the events, to talk about the
events to others, or the events were thought of involuntarily). In both
studies, the most frequent reason that people rehearsed events was for
the purpose of talking to others (see Table 1), and its reported frequency
was significantly greater than any other reason.
We admit that there is reason to treat these data with a bit of skepti
cism. For example, because of the open-ended response format, a few re
hearsal estimates were quite high (e.g., over 1,000), requiring that data
transformations be used prior to inferential analyses (a log transforma
tion was used in Study 1 and a truncation of extreme frequencies to the
value of 100 was used in Study 2). However, despite these manipula
tions, it is informative that similar orderings of means emerge in both
data sets. Moreover, in a third study this ordering emerged when partic
ipants were asked to report their rehearsal frequencies on bounded rat
ing scales, eliminating the extreme value problem. The similarities in
our data across studies and across different data collection and treat
ment techniques suggest that there is considerable consistency in peo
ples’ retrospective perceptions of their event rehearsals: People perceive
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 563
that social rehearsals of memories occur often, perhaps more often than
any other single rehearsal type.
CONVERSATIONAL NORMS THAT MAY AFFECT
We next turn to an examination of the social rehearsals themselves and
to the conditions that can alter the communication of autobiographical
events. A number of questions immediately present themselves. Why
are people selective in the events that they convey to others? Why are
someevents described frequently while other eventsare described infre
quently or not at all? Why do people convey some event details and not
others? Why are some event details distorted in the conveyance while
others are conveyed accurately? What influences the insertion of
non-event information (such as metaphors) into event descriptions and
whatimpact does inclusion of such devices have on later event memory?
These questions are partly answered by referring to social norms that
govern how people communicate with each other. It has been argued
that these norms are part of the social contract between the speaker and
the listener, who both engage in conversation to achieve particular
goals. These norms determine what kind of information is discussed,
how the information is discussed, and which reactions are appropriate
(e.g., Clark, 1996; Clark & Schober, 1992; Grice 1975, Higgins, 1992;
McCann & Higgins, 1990; Sperber & Wilson, 1986). We will argue that
the operation of these norms can have an impact on the frequency of
event conveyance and the content of such conveyance. In pursuing this
564 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
TABLE 1. Rehearsal Estimates by Rehearsal Type for Events Occurring within the Past
Rehearsal Type Study 1 Study 2
Remember Event Details 1.82
Re-Experience Event’s Emotion 1.95
Better Understand the Event .38
Rehearsal Was Involuntary 1.69
Don’t Know Why Rehearsed — 2.05
Other — .67
Note. Within each study, means that share a superscript are not significantly different.
idea, we explicitly build on the work of Pasupathi (2001). Pasupathi pro
posed that speaker qualities and listener qualities, as well as prior con
versational recollections, combine to affect the content of
autobiographical memory. According to Pasupathi’s model, these fac
tors create a social context that helps people select, organize, and inter
pret individual event memories. Figure 1 presents this principle of
We similarly argue that social norms, via their influence on social dis
closure, can affect autobiographical memory in several ways. These in
clude alterations in the recall of a given memory, the content of the
memory, the accuracy of the memory, the reconstructed temporal loca
tion of the memory, and emotions accompanying the memory. The sec
tions that follow describe various conversational norms and discuss the
potentialeffects these norms may have on autobiographical memories.
KEEP IT FRESH
When engaging in social discourse with others, one of the rules that a
speaker needs to follow is to be informative. This often takes the form of
discussing information that is thought to be unknown to the listener. For
example, the question “What’s new?” is typical when friends and family
reunite after a period apart.
An example of the tendency to focus on new events in social discourse
was noted by Pennebaker and Harber (1993). They surveyed: (1) 789
people in the San Francisco Bay area immediately after the Loma Prieta
earthquake, and (2) 2,188 people in Dallas, TX immediately after the
start of the Persian Gulf War. Their data suggested that these events
were discussed frequently by most people for approximately two weeks
after each event. After this two-week period, discussion of these events
One might also assume that individuals with diverse social networks
have many opportunities to discuss autobiographical memories, and
that these opportunities are likely to be spread across time and space.
Hence, one would expect the memories of these socially connected peo
ple to be more affected by their discourse-induced rehearsals than those
with impoverished social networks, who presumably do not have the
same opportunities to discuss the events in their lives with others. This
tendency to focus on new events in social interactions may also work to
the detriment of older events. The amount of time available for interac
tion may often take the form of a zero-sum game: When one discusses
the new, one does not rehearse the old. This lack of rehearsal is likely one
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 565
factor that is responsible for the dissipation of autobiographical
memories with the passage of time.
KEEP IT RELEVANT
Social discourse often has implicit agreed-upon parameters within
which speakers are required to stay. For example, in conversations
speakers might “know” that each memory that is reported should be rel
evant to the agreed-upon topic in the social discourse. This norm re
quires that the speaker understands the goals of the listener and
provides input that meets these goals. For example, Russell and Schober
(1999) asked pairs of individuals to describe abstract shapes to each
other. In some cases, the listener needed to be able to describe the shape
in general terms and, in other cases, the listener needed to describe the
shape in specific terms. The speaker was either aware or unaware of the
listener’s goals. When speakers were aware of the listener’s goals, they
tailored their speech to match the perceived goals of the listeners. This
helped the listener obtain the necessary information about the shape.
When speakers were unaware of the listener’s goals, they assumed that
566 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
FIGURE 1. The principle of co-construction.
Both listeners and speakers influence the rehearsal of events. This process is con-
strained by prior rehearsals (Pasupathi, 2001).
the listener’s goals were similar to their own and tailored their
One component of relevance is interest value. If a conversation is not
relevant to a listener, then a speaker runs the risk of boring the listener.
Hence, a speaker may attempt to present information that they think is
interesting to a listener. Autobiographical events that are thought to be
interesting are often those events that are extreme or novel. For example,
in our autobiographical memory research we examined the relation be
tween the emotional extremity of an event, the valence of an event, and
the event’s judged rehearsal frequency (Skowronski, Gibbons, Vogl, &
Walker, in press). Participants were asked to report the frequency with
which they rehearsed autobiographical events on a seven-point scale.
Participants also rated the positive emotion provoked by the event and
the negative emotion provoked by the event, also on seven-point scales.
As shown in Table 2, higher levels of both positive and negative emo
tions in events were related to high social rehearsal frequency. Thus,
people talk to others about events that they deem emotional, which
presumably are thought to be interesting to audiences.
The conveyance of emotion-provoking events also has implications for
the emotions that accompany event memories. In previous research, we
found that the negative emotions that accompany autobiographical mem-
ories seem to fade over time at a faster rate than the positive emotions that
accompany those memories. This differential fading of emotion has been
termed the fading affect bias. More recent research (Skowronski, et al., in
press) has linked this fading affect bias to the social rehearsal of event
memories. That is, increased social sharing of memories is related to (and,
indeed, appears to cause) a reduction in the fading of positive affect asso
ciated with positive event memories over time, but is also related to an in
crease in the fading of negative affect associated with negative event
memories. These results suggest that talking to others may help one to re
tain the “rosy glow” that results from positive events, but may take the
emotional “sting” out of negative events (also see Walker, Skowronski,
Gibbons, Vogl, & Thompson, in press).
Might such effects also be related to a bias in the content of discourse?
The data in Table 2 are not indicative of a tendency toward positivity in
social rehearsals. Such a bias would be convenient in a number of ways.
For example, if such a tendency existed, it might be related to the ten
dency for positive autobiographical events to be better recalled than
negative events (Holmes, 1970; Walker et al., 1997). Instead, our data has
consistently shown that positive and negative life events are perceived
to be communicated with roughly equal frequency.
This result is a surprise. There are a number of reasons to expect that
people would be more likely to communicate positive life events than
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 567
568 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
TABLE 2. Least-squared Means from Analyses of Rehearsal Frequency Estimates (Made on a Seven-Point Scale) by Positive and Negative
Emotions Induced by Events (Unpublished Data)
Extremity of Emotion Rating
To describe events to others Positive 2.33 2.38 2.41 2.50 2.71 3.12 3.54
Negative 2.26 2.39 2.54 2.64 2.77 2.93 3.45
So others can understand me better Positive 1.68 1.74 1.77 1.90 2.07 2.36 2.67
Negative 1.66 1.74 1.85 2.03 2.12 2.16 2.65
negative events. One of these reasons is simply event base rate. Walker,
Skowronski, and Thompson (2003) recently reviewed a number of stud
ies in autobiographical memory. These studies included: (a) diary stud
ies in which participants recorded a variety of events over a designated
recording period, (b) studies of childhood memories, and (c) retrospec
tive reports provided in controlled laboratory conditions. All of these
studies suggest that positive life events are perceived to outnumber
negative life events by a ratio of 2 to 1.
Another line of argument favoring positivity in discourse is that,
while social interactions can have negative consequences (see Rook,
1984), most people probably choose to engage in social discourse be
cause they find it enjoyable (Hartup & Stevens, 1997). Hence, one might
speculate that people prefer that the content of their social discourse be
positive rather than negative. After all, while it is certainly the case that
discussions need to be appropriate to the circumstances (students will
often commune in their sorrow after an exam that they perceived to be
difficult or unfair), it is also the case that people who excessively com-
plain about their lives to others are likely to receive social sanctions and
be excluded from future group conversations.
An oft-cited historical example of that preference can be found in the
public’s different reactions to Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Carter
was perceived as a person who was all too willing to describe the coun-
try’s events and circumstances in negative terms (e.g., his labeling of the
country as experiencing “malaise”). In comparison, Reagan’s public
messages about the state of our country were relentlessly upbeat, and he
peppered those messages with uplifting stories of the successes of spe
cific individuals. Hence, while Carter might have been perceived to be a
sincere, competent, and intelligent man, he was also perceived to be a bit
of a boor. In contrast, Reagan, who was relentlessly ridiculed for his sim
plistic thinking, was nonetheless able to garner tremendouspublic affec
tion. Such differential reactions, if generally applicable, would seem to
work toward inducing people to focus on the positive in their social
Positivity in social discourse also might be expected from the self-pre
sentation literature. Theorists in that literature have described a number
of motivations that underlie the presentation of the self to others. While
self-presentations are undertaken to manipulate observers’ impres
sions, actors can also engage in self-presentations for the purpose of con
structing and maintaining the self and for the purpose of emotion
regulation (for a review see Leary, 1995). These motives for self-presen
tation suggest that people should more often want to depict themselves
positively to others than negatively. These considerations imply that
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 569
positivity should be more frequent than negativity in the description of
autobiographical events to others.
However, in several studies we have attempted to look for this
positivity effect in discourse and have yet to find evidence for it. The
data depicted in Table 2 are characteristic of our findings. Peoples’ per
ceptions of the extent to which they rehearse events are related to the
emotional extremity of the event but not to its valence. In considering
this finding, one might argue that, when discussing autobiographical
events, the need to be interesting and relevant to the discourse domi
nates, overriding other factors that might be expected to lead to
positivity in discourse content. After all, social psychologists have often
speculated that because negative events are non-normative, they are
perceived to be more informative than positive events (Jones & Davis,
1965; Ybarra, Stephan, & Schaberg, 2000). Successfully consuming a cup
of tea in the morning is pleasant, but is hardly a “newsworthy” event.
However, spilling that tea on one’s trousers might be newsworthy, ei-
ther as an excuse for being late to a meeting or as an amusing story to tell
to one’s friends at a party. Certainly, many news organizations seem to
have discovered that there is good reason to follow the maxim “if it
bleeds, it leads.” People who describe their autobiographical events to
others might similarly come to expect that negative events are often
more interesting to others than positive.
The focus on the interest value of an event might have at least one
other effect on the content of social discourse. This norm might induce a
speaker to alter or embellish the details of thestory to make the tale more
interesting to a listener. For example, a colleague of one of the authors is
fond of describing a pickup softball game in which the author threw the
colleague out at home as the colleague tried to score from second base on
a single. As that story has been retold over the years, the throw has taken
on mythic qualities, and there is no doubt that the colleague has come to
believe that the throw was a prodigious one. Unfortunately, the author
who made the throw remembers things quite differently. The single was
sharply hit, the ball was quickly corralled in medium-center field, and
the colleague was not the speediest runner on the base paths. Hence, the
author’s memory is that the throw, while good, was not especially diffi
cult or noteworthy (it is also interesting to note that the author does not
chooseto correct the colleague’s memory when he tells the story—which
must say something interesting about the low moral qualities of the au
thor). It is clear that the colleague’s attempt to make the story interesting
to an audience caused the colleague to exaggerate some details of the
story. Across time, these exaggerations, in the absence of corrective
feedback, probably become indistinguishable from the original memory
570 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
Such errors seem to reflect the idea that failures in reality monitoring
(Johnson, 1988) can lead to memory errors. However, because another
discourse norm is honesty in communications (see “Keep it Real, below),
an individual whose recollections too often deviated from the verifiable
truth would probably experience social approbation. Such approbation
would likely induce people to make some effort to distinguish between
reality and distortion in their memories. Nonetheless, it is certainly pos
sible that people might lose track of the distortions intentionally intro
duced into their stories and come to report them as ”truth," especially
when there is little possibility of corrective feedback from others. In fact,
one wonders whether in such cases the original information is retriev
able from memory, or whether it has been replaced or rendered inacces
sible by the repetition of the erroneous information in social discourse.
The issue of the retrievability of the original information in the face of
embellishments or distortions is an issue that has been long debated
with regard to the misinformation effect (e.g., Zaragoza & Koshmider,
A final point to be made about the norm of relevance in communica-
tions is that a focus on relevance in discourse might lead to possible vio-
lation of other conversational norms, such as the norm emphasizing the
conveyance of new information. For example, in some interactions, the
point of the conversation might be levity. In pursuit of this goal, one
might recount an amusing anecdote from one’s life, even though others
have already heard the anecdote. This repetition is tolerated because the
laughter provoked by the story is the main point of the communication,
not the information conveyed by the story’s content. Similarly, in trying
to comfort a disheartened colleague, one might relate a well-known epi
sode from one’s past in an attempt to make a point (e.g., “Remember
when I worked on that memory paradigm? It took years before I finally
got that to work correctly.”). These examples suggest that those autobio
graphical events that are thought to be particularly “useful” or “illustra
tive” are repeatedly used when circumstances are right, and the high
frequency with which such events are repeated should substantially
influence memory for those events.
KEEP IT REAL
Despite the fact that people sometimes introduce distortions into their
event descriptions for purposes such as entertainment or self-presenta
tion, conversational norms generally prescribe honesty in discourse.
When this norm is active, it can affect thecontent of an event description.
Certainly, such a norm might cause reluctance to describe events or
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 571
event details that are implausible unless they can be verified by external
sources (e.g., photographs) or other witnesses. For example, some mod
els of autobiographical memory suggest that autobiographical memo
ries are retrieved via a process of cyclic retrieval: The memory is
reconstructed online until retrieval is deemed complete (Conway, 1996).
This process implies that memories will sometimes not be deemed com
plete. Thus, when honesty norms are salient, people may be reluctant to
report events or event details of which they are unsure. It logically fol
lows that the events or details that are not described will not be subject to
the beneficial or biasing effects of public rehearsal.
However, as noted earlier, people sometimes violate this honesty
norm and lie about events in their lives. Vogl (2001) documented such
lies using a diary procedure in which people kept track of the lies they
told for several weeks. This research documented instances of lying
across an array of situations. Telling such lies is often an experience that
is associated with nervousness (of course, that is one principle that un-
derlies the science of lie detection). For example, White and Burgoon
(2001) found thatlying increased the anxiety levels of the speaker and re-
duced the involvement of both the listener and the speaker in the
However, the impact of that arousal on memory is unclear. On the one
hand, the unpleasantness associated with the lie mightserve to suppress
further rehearsal of the event (either public or private). Hence, it logi-
cally follows that the events or details that are not described should not
be subject to the beneficial or biasing effects of public rehearsal. Alterna-
tively, the arousal associated with the lie (or with the lie’s potential con-
sequences) might serve as an additional motivation to make sure that
one is able to keep the lie and the original event description distinct in
memory. The information processing that is necessary to keep these two
memories distinct might serve to enhance memory for the original event
(or for certain event details).
One other complicating factor is that arousal itself has implications for
information processing (Kolanczyk, 2001). For example, some research
suggests that a high arousal level clouds information processing ability.
If this is the case, people who lie about an event in a public contest might
be more susceptible to misinformation-type effects in event memories.
For example, assume that one is involved in a discussion of an event. In
the course of this discussion, the other discussants might describe event
details that differ from the details that an individual recalls, or provide
details that the individual might not recall at all. Such publicly provided
details can become incorporated into a person’s event memory (Betz, et
al., 1996). This effect might be even more likely to occur as a result of the
arousal associated with telling an event-related lie. That is, because high
572 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
arousal might cause people to be less likely to cognitively counterargue
the event detail as it is encountered (Eagly, Kulesa, Brannon, Shaw, &
Hutson-Comeaux, 2000), that false detail might have a better chance of
becoming incorporated into a person’s reconstruction of the event. If the
details obtained from others are accurate, the veracity of the later event
memory reconstruction may increase as a result of the
socially-transmitted information; if not, the subsequent event memory
can become more distorted.
KEEP IT BRIEF
Because the social rehearsal of event memories consumes cognitive and
temporal resources, it makes sense that listeners do not want superflu
ous detail. Note that this does not mean that listeners do not want a
richly detailed narrative (after all, such details are often essential to a
good story), but they do expect that the discourse will proceed in a
timely manner. This norm allows the listener both to process the input
without becoming bored and to respond appropriately. Speakers who
violate this rule risk social approbation. For example, Pushkar et al.
(2000) asked 198 older adults to engage in the simple conversational task
of getting acquainted in small groups. Some of these people engaged in
very lengthy self-descriptions and were generally less interested in the
input of others. These individuals received significantly more negative
reactions from listeners than other speakers and tended to respond to
the negativity by cutting short their conversational input.
The emphasis on brevity in descriptions has implications for subse
quent event memory. One’s initial memory for an event might contain a
great deal of information: sights, sounds, smells, emotions, etc. Because
many of these kinds of cues are not central to the event, they may not be
conveyed in the description of the event. This should occur because of
the need to focus on the high points of the event and to ignore the periph
eral details when the event is discussed. Consequently, these kinds of
noncentral cues may tend to fall away from the memory with repeated
event retellings. One additional implication of this process is that even
though repeated discussion of an event might cause an event to be
highly accessible in memory, with repeated retelling the event might
tend to become increasingly semantic in nature. Such events seemingly
correspond to Brewer’s (1996) description of events that are autobio
graphical facts—events in a person’s life that are recalled, but without ac
companying sensory or experiential details. In comparison an event that
is rehearsed frequently, but only during private reflections, may retain
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 573
its sensory qualities and remain, to use Brewer’s term, a recollective
KEEP IT UNDERSTANDABLE
When conveying an event, a speaker has to take the characteristics of the
audience into consideration. Often, this means that an event has to be
communicatedin such a way that the audience can understand the event
(Krauss & Fussell, 1991). One implication of this idea is that a speaker
might include extra-event information in the communication, such as
comparisons or metaphors, that they think might be useful to a listener.
For example, in describing a recent blind date, a woman might describe
the date as a person who “looks like Brad Pitt.”
The inclusion of such comparisons or metaphors might influence later
memory for an event. For example, as illustrated by Bartlett’s (1932) work
on image reproduction, attaching a verbal label to an ambiguous stimulus
can distort later memory for the stimulus. We are proposing a similar pro-
cess here. That is, if asked to reconstruct the appearance of the blind date
after using the Brad Pitt metaphor in descriptions to others, the speaker
might later experience distortion in recalling the date’s image so that it
more closely resembles Brad Pitt.
ALLOW FOR FEEDBACK
Evidence suggests that feedback is important in conversation and has
benefits for both the speaker and the audience. Kraut, Lewis, & Swezy
(1982) asked participants in a study to watch a movie and later describe
the movie to either one or two listeners. When there were two listeners,
one was instructed to give feedback and the other was instructed to lis
ten passively. On a later test, the listener who provided feedback had
higher levels of comprehension of the film than the passive listener. Ad
ditional data suggested that when speakers received more feedback,
they were more likely to provide more details. This additional input al
lowed both listeners to understand the film better.
We suggest that such feedback can affect the memory of the event de
scriber as well as the memory of description of the listener. For example,
encouraging the production of greater numbers of event details obvi
ously increases the probability that those details will be later recalled.
However, encouraging description elaboration via listener feedback
may also increase the probability that an event memory would be sub
574 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
ject to any memory-distorting effects that might occur as a result of the
inclusion of false details in the event description.
Moreover, the accumulated impact of such feedback over time can
help to explain between-group differences in the kinds of autobiograph
ical memories that people report. For example, Eastern cultures may dis
courage event descriptions that focus on the self at the expense of the
group. Wang (2001) hypothesizes that mothers may convey this norm to
children by the feedback that they provide in the course of mother-child
interactions. Different events might be encouraged or discouraged by
mothers from Western cultures and Eastern cultures, leading children to
self-edit their event descriptions. Over time, these self-editing effects
may ultimately come to bias autobiographical memory. For example, in
Eastern cultures such editing may come to favor recall of group-relevant
events relative to recall of individual events. Similar effects might be a
cause of gender differences in autobiographical memory (Fivush, 1998).
For example, positive feedback in interactions with others may encour-
age males to remember male stereotype-consistent events while dis-
couraging memory for other events. Similar effects may bias females’
event memories, which may focus on interpersonal events relative to
One other potentially important aspect of feedback might have to do
with the emotions that are experienced when events are recalled. Recent
research (Walker et al., 1997; Walker et al., 2003) suggests that the ex-
tremity of affect associated with negative events fades faster than the ex-
tremity of affect associated with positive affect. Additional research
(Skowronski et al., in press) shows that this effect is moderated by social
discourse. When events are frequently discussed with others, the fading
affect bias is particularly large. When events are not frequently dis
cussed, the fading affect bias is small or nonexistent. Moreover, a similar
effect holds for the diversity of the audience for an event description. In
dependent of description frequency, the fading affect bias is particularly
large when the event was described to many different types of people;
the bias is small or nonexistent when the event was described only to a
few types of people.
Listener feedback may play a role in these effects. For example, imag
ine that a person describes a negative event to a friend. That friend might
respond to the event description with messages of support, entreaties to
avoid self-blame, and encouragement to blame the negative event on
other people or on bad luck that will not be repeated. On the other hand,
imagine that a person describes a positive event to a friend. That friend
might reply to that event with expressions of joy, attributing that good
event to the describer’s personal qualities and implying that the event
might be likely to occur again in the future. It is nothard to imagine how,
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 575
over time, such reactions might impact the affect associated with re
called events. That is, the soothing words of the listener might help to re
move the sting of negative events, while the joy of friends might help to
maintain the elation associated with positive events.
Of course, these social reactions may not be the only mechanism that
contributes to the fading affect bias. Pennebaker (1997a, 1997b) has
shown that merely describing negative events, even with no audience
present, can help to ease the sting of negative events across time.
Pennebaker speculates that the reduction in affect is a consequence of
the cognitive work that one exerts as one constructs the event descrip
tion. We do not dispute this mechanism. Instead, we offer the reactions
of listeners as an additional mechanism that can help to explain valence
differences in the extent to which the intensity of affect associated with
event memories changes over time.
HAVE A POINT
Listeners expect that event memories that are described during dis-
course should make a contribution to the consensually accepted pur-
pose of the interaction. One of the goals that speakers often have when
disclosing event memories is to convey to a listener a general sense of the
speaker’s traits and beliefs. Thus, in an attempt to be maximally infor-
mative, one might recount certain “critical” incidents from one’s life that
one thinks are especially indicative of one’s traits or goals, and use them
frequently in the course of attempting to convey one’s internal charac-
teristics to others (McAdams, 2001; Singer & Bluck, 2001).
This idea that the communication of events often conveys information
about the self is also reflected in the findings of Barbara Woike and her
colleagues (Woike, Gershkovich, Piorkowski, & Polo, 1999; Woike,
Lavezzary, & Barksy, 2001). Woike has distinguished between individu
als who are agentic (motivated by self-interests) and individuals who
are communal (motivated by group interests). In social discourse,
agentic individuals often report memories that reflect the themes of so
cial separation, self-mastery, anddifferentiation, highlighting their indi
viduality and their experiences as individuals. In comparison,
communal individuals report memories that reflect themes of friend
ship, love, and social connection, highlighting their connection to other
We speculate that these attempts to describe “the self” to others
should have predictable effects on autobiographical memory. That is,
with increasing repetition such events should be more likely to be re
called as autobiographical facts than as recollective memories. Further
576 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
more, the memories of these events should also be more likely to
incorporate distortions if those distortions are included in the event de
scriptions provided to others. Finally, the intensity of affect associated
with such frequently described events should reflect the fading affect
bias: Recall of frequently described negative events should provoke less
negative affect, and frequently described positive events more positive
affect, than the affect provoked by events that are not described to
COGNITION AND THE DESCRIPTION OF
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENT MEMORIES
It should by now be obvious that there are many cognitive mechanisms
than can help to explain how event retellings could alter one’s ability to
remember the event later (see Pasupathi, 2001). We have already re-
ferred to a number of different cognitive mechanisms that might play a
role in the alteration of autobiographical memories as a consequence of
event descriptions. At least five such mechanisms are relatively
First, it is an axiom of memory that rehearsal influences recall. Those
events that an individual chooses to convey to others should be better re-
called than events that are not conveyed. In fact, recent data that we have
collected suggests that social interaction might be particularly impor-
tant in prompting rehearsal (Walker et al., 2003). In several studies, we
have asked people to recall autobiographical events and to report how
often they have rehearsed those events. Participants in these studies
overwhelmingly reported that the most frequent reason for the re
hearsal of autobiographical events was to describe the event to others.
These social rehearsals may prompt a second cognitive mechanism
that can affect autobiographical memory. The retelling of autobiograph
ical stories often involves elaborative rehearsal of a memory, and it is an
axiom that such elaborative rehearsals are particularly good at building
memory for an event. However, these elaborations also have the poten
tial to shape or distort event memories. Consider the consequences of the
inclusion of extra-event information, such as metaphors or compari
sons, in event retellings. For example, in describing the car that ran him
off the road, a speaker might say: “I couldn’t identify the car, but it re
sembled a DeLorean.” When later memory is tested, reconstruction of
the car might be distorted to increasingly resemble the DeLorean. Fi
nally, these elaborations can also have consequences for the affect pro
voked by an event memory. As noted earlier, Pennebaker (1997a, 1997b)
speculates that the cognitive work that one exerts as one constructs a
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 577
description of a negative event can work to reduce the affect associated
with that event.
Third, in retelling events a speaker is selective in the retelling: Some
event details might be emphasized in preference to other details, some
might be altered, while still others might be omitted. Such selectivity ob
viously has the potential to shape an individual’s memory for an event.
Details excluded from descriptions should be less likely to be remem
bered, and false event details that are inserted in such descriptions
should be more likely to be erroneously “recalled” as being part of the
Fourth, the process of describing events to others might alter the na
tureof the memory representation or might providea memory represen
tation that competes with the original memory trace. For example,
consider the phenomenon of verbal overshadowing (Dodson, Johnson,
& Schooler, 1997). One possible consequence of describing events is that
an event memory might have dual representation. One of these would
be the memory for the event description; the second would be the epi-
sodic memory of the original event. At recall, memory for the descrip-
tion might compete with the original memory trace. Hence, while the
occurrence of an oft-described event might be easily remembered, the
specific perceptual details of the event might become increasingly
difficult to retrieve.
Fifth, autobiographical memory might be shaped by the anticipation
of future events that are included in the course of conversations about
events that have not yet occurred. That is, when discussing what one is
going to do tomorrow, one can establish a cognitive structure that can
later be used to encode and retrieve relevant events. Memory research
suggests that events that are consistent with an established organiza
tional structure tend to be more easily encoded and retrieved in free re
call tasks; events that violate the structure tend to be given more
attention and elaboration, and might be better recalled in recognition
tasks. Hence, by discussing events that have not yet occurred with oth
ers, one is establishing a mental structure that might be used to process
information about the event when it occurs.
An understanding of how the conveyance of autobiographical events
affects memory also requires attention to the organization and structure
of memory. Indeed, a substantial body of evidence suggests that auto
biographical memory is highly organized (e.g., Conway, 1990; Conway
& Bekerian, 1987; Thompson, et al., 1996). For example, a large number
of studies seem to show that time is one variable that can serve to orga
nize recall. For example, Anderson and Conway (1993) found that peo
ple were better able to remember event memories when cued with the
beginning and end points of an event than when cued with other event
578 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
characteristics. The results of other studies suggest that events that are
widely separated in time are easier to order than events that are closely
spaced in time, an outcome known as the temporal distance effect (e.g.,
Underwood, 1977). Skowronski, Walker, and Betz (2003; 2004) have re
cently shown that this temporal distance effect occurs even when one
controls for event memory, suggesting that there is a temporal compo
nent to memory that is not entirely dependent on the details of the
The origin of this organization, however, is a point of some debate.
One currently popular model is the Self-Memory System Model (Conway
& Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). The strength of the Self-Memory System
Model is that it provides a definitive mentalstructure that serves to orga
nize and structure autobiographical memory and a clear set of processes
that are thought to operate on that structure. In this model, autobio
graphical memory is postulated to be a multiply structured knowledge
base. Proponents of this model argue that autobiographical memory
takes the form of partonomic hierarchical knowledgestructures: Knowl-
edge of a specific event is a part of knowledge about general events,
which itself may be a part of lifetime periods or lifetime themes (see Fig-
ure 2). As a consequence, descriptions of event memories often contain
all three kinds of information. An individual may provide a broad tem-
poral context (e.g., when I was in grade school), information about a gen-
eral event (e.g., I was serving as an altar boy) and specific event detail
(e.g., I sneaked a slug of sacramental wine).
Conway and Pleydell-Pearce suggest that events enter the autobio-
graphical knowledge base because of their relevance to the personal
goals present at event occurrence. Hence, events that are not relevant to
personal goals will not be well recalled. Moreover, rehearsal is thought
to be particularly important to one’s ability to access event-specific
knowledge after that knowledge has been stored (Burt, Watt, Mitchell, &
Conway, 1998). Even though an event might have been initially storedin
the event-specific knowledge base, in the absence of rehearsal access to
specific event detail is thought to become increasingly difficult.
It is important to note that this theory views autobiographical memories
as generated transitory constructions rather than stable event memories.
This conception of memory allows the self-memory system to be respon
sive to the changing goals of the self and to the situational demands of
event recall. At the heart of this theory is the process of cyclic retrieval.
Event details are retrieved in a cyclic pattern until the parameters of the
recall task are approximated. In other words, people keep attempting to
retrieve information until they judge that some criterion is reached.
Given the judgment component that is incorporated into the model, it
is not surprising that executive control processes play a central role in
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 579
the Working Self System Model. These processes lend structure to auto
biographical memory at input and regulate access to event-specific
knowledge during retrieval. These control processes are thought to be
responsible for transforming the goals of the self into temporal and the
matic structures in which to house the retrieved event details. These con
trol processes also are thought to operate during retrieval by regulating
how much effort is expended in accessing event-specific knowledge
during the process of memory reconstruction and by regulating deci
sions about the amount of event-specific knowledge that is required
580 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
FIGURE 2. The autobiographical memory knowledge base of the Working Self
Event-specific knowledge (ESK) is shown as an undifferentiated pool of knowledge,
regions of which (the circles) are activated by cues held at the general event level. The
small squares indicate activated ESK (Conway, 1996). Reprinted with permission.
prior to making a decision about whether an event has been
Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) attempted to pit the Self-Memory
System Model against a social interactionist view of autobiographical
memory, claiming that the Working Self Model can better account for a
number of memory-related phenomena. Examples that they provide
are: The relation of goals to memories, distortions of memories,
neuropsychological and clinical disruptions of autobiographical mem
ory, changes in autobiographical memory in adolescence, and different
types of autobiographical memory. While we agree with Conway and
Pleydell-Pearce about the utility of their formulation, we are somewhat
puzzled by the fact that they view the social interactionist position as in
compatible with their model. We obviously see the two positions as
quite compatible. There are a number of elements in the social
interactionist position that can be easily and directly placed into the
working self framework, with minimal modification to that framework.
The first element is obvious: Rehearsal. In the Self-Memory System
Model, rehearsal is a process that is crucial to the ability to recall event
details. We have similarly argued that rehearsal is important to the
maintenance of a memory. However, we have also argued that there are
different kinds of rehearsal, and these different rehearsal types might
have different effects on memory. We think that these differing effects
can be understood by reference to the different components of memory
in the Self-Memory System Model and whether those components are
repeatedly accessed together when reconstructing a memory. Such con-
temporaneous access is often the case when one recounts a story to oth-
ers: The story needs to be put in proper temporal and situational life
context, so if a story is repeatedly told these contextual elements will of
ten be activated and used in the memory reconstruction. It follows that
with repeated retellings these contextual elements will routinely be ac
cessed with the memory itself. In comparison, events that are not fre
quently conveyed to others, but that may be privately rehearsed, may
not acquire these contextual elements. Instead, the memories may retain
their sensory qualities and be less likely to be seen as part of a lifetime pe
riod when the event is recalled. These considerations lead to a straight
forward prediction: Events that are frequently recounted to others will
be more easily placed into a lifetime period than events that are not, even
equating for overall rehearsal frequency.
The social conveyance of an event’s temporal context also helps to
solve another conceptual problem with respect to the ability to place
events in time. How does an event get temporally recoded as the event
ages? That is, yesterday’s event becomes last week’s event, which be
comes last month’s event, which becomes last semester’s event, which
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 581
becomes last year’s event, which becomes that event that happened
while I was working at Ohio State. How does such recoding occur? The
Self-Memory System Model provides the structure for the temporal
recoding of such events by suggesting that the self works to structure
memory into meaningful lifetime periods. However, the Self-Memory
System Model has no ready mechanism to provide for recoding of
events into these meaningful time periods as an event (and a person)
ages. One can use the details of event-specific knowledge to reconstruct
the period during which an event occurred, but it would certainly be
cumbersome to do that every time a memory is accessed. Social dis
course provides a ready mechanism for this recoding. When telling sto
ries one must often place events in temporal context. These conveyed
temporal contexts will change with time (e.g., yesterday, last month, last
year, etc.) and will hence change the lifetime period associated with an
event as a story is retold.
This possibility leads to a couple of intriguing predictions. The first is
that events that are frequently rehearsed will be more easily subject to
within-period ordering confusion than events that are not. That is, if
each of two events is frequently described to others as occurring “during
college” it should be more difficult to order those events than to order
two events that are equivalent in temporal distance but that have not
been frequently disclosed to others. However, the situation ought to re-
verse for events that occur in different time periods. That is, because of
the easy accessibility of life theme labels, a high school event should be
more easily placed in time as coming before a college event if those two
events have been frequently discussed with others than if those two
events have not.
The control parameters that are built into the Self-Memory System
Model also seem to be a perfect vehicle for the operation of social norms
during recall. That is, the rules of discourse—keep it real, keep it brief,
keep it fresh, keep it relevant, have a point—can also be thought of as so
cial norms that might serve to partially govern the memory search and
reconstruction process. Hence, when asked to remember and recount an
autobiographical event, people have an internalized representation of
the level of detail and accuracy that is required to fulfill the memory re
quest and conduct their memory search until that level of detail and ac
curacy is reached. Moreover, the expected level of detail and accuracy
can be expected to change across situations, and via the internalization
of social norms the Self-Memory System Model’s control processes
would be sensitive to these variations. One might work harder to come
up with a more detailed and a more accurate retelling of events if one is
testifying at a trial than if one is responding to a stranger’s request for
event information. Furthermore, the decision criterion that is used to in
582 SKOWRONSKI AND WALKER
clude a fact as a part of a reconstructed memory representation might
change as a function of situational changes. Hence, errors in reality mon
itoring that might routinely be observed in laboratory contexts in which
relatively little is at stake might be less likely when social pressure
demands only verifiable facts.
Conway and Pleydell-Pearce’s Self-Memory System Model also em
phasizes the role of the self-concept in the storage and reconstruction of
autobiographical event memories. However, it is an axiom in social psy
chology that the self is partly a social construction. Because one of the
central concepts of the Self-Memory System Model is that the goal struc
ture of the working self is critical in both the encoding and retrieval of
autobiographical knowledge, it stands to reason that the social factors
that contribute to the self must also play a role in regulating autobio
graphical memory. For example, Conway and Pleydell-Pearce cite the
work of McAdams (1993) as evidence for their goal-oriented position.
However, it is hard not to notice that much of McAdams’s work con-
cerns the social themes of peoples’ lives, notably the themes of power
and intimacy. Moreover, given that intimacy and power are often goals
that people have in their social discourse, and given that Conway and
Pleydell-Pearce argue that the current state of the working self may de-
termine which autobiographical knowledge is accessed and how that
knowledge can be constructed into a memory, it again seems reasonable
to speculate that when these social motives are activated during the
course of conversation they will work to shape the recall of
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
In this article we have attempted to articulate our view of the possible
impact of social discourse on autobiographical memory. We reviewed
literature documenting the impact of social factors, including culture,
social roles, and social discourse rehearsals, on aspects of autobiograph
ical memory. We described several social norms that govern social dis
course and speculated about the effect that such norms might have on
autobiographical memory. We reviewed the mental structures and pro
cesses that might serve to mediate the relation between social discourse
and autobiographical memory and offered suggestions about how both
social and cognitive factors might be integrated into a common model
accounting for autobiographical memory.
While others have treated this same topic, we think that our approach
is novel because of our attempt to provide a relatively integrated view of
the phenomenon. That is, we discussed how some factors that operate at
the group level (e.g., discourse norms) might regulate discourse, and
DESCRIBING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EVENTS 583
hence might impact autobiographical memory. However, at the same
time we also attempted to describe some of the mental processes and
structures that are activated during social discourse and how those
might work to alter autobiographical memory. Our pluralistic approach
to the issue offers a potential bridge between the ideas of those who fo
cus on the operation of cognitive mechanisms in autobiographical mem
ory (e.g., Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000) and those who focus on
social and cultural effects on autobiographical memory (e.g., Pasupathi,
Indeed, such a bridge might be long past due, especially in the eyes of
commentators who deride research in both social psychology and in
cognition for its focus on laboratory phenomena that may have little to
do with the social context of behavior (e.g., Woll, 2002). Here is a
real-world phenomenon—autobiographical memory—that can be rig
orously analyzed and that can serve as a proving ground for seminal
ideas in social psychology and cognitive psychology as well as serving
as a crucible for the discovery of new phenomena (such as the reminis-
cence bump—see Rubin & Schulkind, 1997). We do not claim to account
for all possible cognitive or social influences on autobiographical mem-
ory—future research will certainly show that variables other than those
discussed in the present article will certainly have an impact on autobio-
graphical memory. Nonetheless, we think that our attempt represents a
useful step toward understanding autobiographical memory, and we
hope that empirical investigation of the ideas and hypotheses embodied
in this article will spur a deeper understanding of the social, personal,
cognitive, and developmental mechanisms that contribute to our
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