Three Forms of Social Interaction in Early Life and the Development, Organisation and Maintenance of Autobiographical Memory.
Autobiographical memories are those enduring memories of events and personal experiences which are drawn from in the construction of an individual’s life story. The personal and social meanings attached to those memories provide us and those we relate our story to, with a sense of how we became who we are. The development of an inner autobiographical knowledge base begins with the onset of the cognitive self and social interaction plays an important role in shaping and maintaining our memories. This essay will describe three forms of social interaction and how these influence the development, organisation and maintenance of autobiographical memory early in life. The interaction forms described focus on gender development, personality development and distancing from the negative emotions of an event.
There is debate in psychology over the timeframe in which autobiographical memories begin to develop. The sociolinguistic argument states that the acquisition of language is crucial to early life development of autobiographical memories which are created in the construction of our personal narrative (Fivush, Haden & Reese, 2006). Proponents of the cognitive perspective however, have found empirical support for their argument that the development of the cognitive self, awareness of self as a separate individual, during the second year is of greater importance than the onset of language (Howe, Courage, & Edison 2003). Howe et al. report the period of amnesia in infants ends with the ability to recognise oneself and self consciously touch a red spot surreptitiously placed on ones nose by an experimenter (2003). There is consensus however, that social interaction plays a vital role in the maintenance of memories and how these memories are recounted.
Cross-cultural studies have shown that culturally driven styles of interaction lead children to create their story from culturally shaped memories. Investigation of American and Asian mother and child reminiscence reveal the promotion of independence and personal actualisation valued in American culture and interdependence and modesty valued in Asian culture occur during mother child interaction (Wang & Brockmeier, 2002). Comparisons of Chinese and American student memories clearly demonstrate these culturally shaped practices influence how events are encoded into autobiographical memory. American students remember detailed events which emphasise the autonomous, assured self, while Chinese students are more likely to remember less detailed events with group orientation and personal humility (Wang & Brockmeier, 2002).
Research suggests that parent and care-giver reminiscence style and content aids the development of culturally determined gender norms, values and beliefs. Fivush (1994) found during observations that white middle class mothers tended to be more elaborative in their talk about personally relevant past with girls than boys, whose language skills where not developed enough to steer or influence the conversation. Greater adult reminiscence elaboration and encouragement to construct their own narrative aids a child’s autobiographical recall and solidifies the memories (Fivush, Haden & Reese, 2006). Further, mother’s clearly distinguished between boys and girls when leading talk about the emotional content of events. Girls tended to be given the message that they should seek out an adult to resolve fear or sadness and were encouraged to find resolution to conflict within their own relationships. Talk with boys included more emphasis on independence and attribution and explanation of anger with less talk of resolution. These patterns suggest that western children are socialised to understand that anger is more tolerable in boys than girls, and girls have greater responsibility towards others feelings in relationships (Fivush, 1994). Studies with adults confirm that western women and men remember differently, women recall more events that are relationship focussed (Skowski, Gibbons, Vogl & Walker, 2004). The research discussed suggests that gender identities are influenced in early social interaction and autobiographical memories will develop to reflect the gendered values of ones culture.
Another form of reminiscence between adult and young child serves to reinforce desirable aspects of the child’s developing personality and discourage less desirable aspects. Discussion of a child’s memories builds self awareness but can illicit tension, for example disapproval in relation to an episode when the child was particularly stubborn. The tension lies between the child’s ideal self (loveable) actual self (stubborn) and ought self (co-operative) (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) devised the Self Memory System to explain how autobiographical memory is organised in terms of the complex hierarchical goal structure of the ‘working-self’ which interacts with the autobiographical knowledge base. The onset of self consciousness, the cognitive self is necessary for the organisation of memories (Howe et al., 2003). The working-self goals of a young child, i.e. to be loved and accepted, are motivated by needs such as, to increase positive affect and reduce negative affect (Conway, Singer & Tagini, 2004). Conway et al. (2004) suggest that self defining memories have the strength to incorporate personal scripts into enduring autobiographical knowledge. Scripts, for example stubborn behaviour, the associated emotion and outcome, become cues and link together related autobiographical memories into themes. If being loved and accepted is a child’s goal the theme stubbornness, will activate relevant memories from cues in the situation and help the child predict if being stubborn in a context will elicit a loving parental response or the opposite. In this way memories are organised to be drawn on as tools to assess how plausible and reachable goals are (Conway et al., 2004). However memories are malleable and can become distorted across time and in interaction. Researchers have found that the organisation of autobiographical memories, linked together by themes activated by contextual cues, is the foundations of personality (Woike, Gershkovich, Piorkowski & Polo, 1999).
Reminiscence between care-giver and child can function to equip the child with the skill to step back from the negative affect associated with an original event. On the other hand adults will encourage children to savour the positive affect tagged to an event. A body of research has demonstrated that people generally experience the fading affect bias, where event positive affect is much stronger at recall than equivalent event negative affect (Ritchie, Skowronski, Wood, Walker, Vogl & Gibbons, 2006). The more a memory is talked over the better the maintenance of the memory and the stronger the fading affect bias (Skowronski et. al, 2004). From approximately two and a half years children begin to understand reasoning and often becomes fixated on ‘why’ questions. Once this questioning is realised care-givers can incorporate an understanding of why events happened in their reminiscence with the child. Reduction of negative affect is the result of conscious self-distancing from the affect and paying attention to why they feel negatively instead of focussing on what they experienced (Kross, Ayduk & Mischel, 2005). Kross et al. (2005) found that negative affect does not fade if the individual uses a cognitive immersion strategy while reflecting on the unpleasant memory. Cognitive distancing from negative affect and savouring positive affect may be skills learned in childhood, and could be contributing to the fading affect bias in autobiographical memory found in adult populations.
The person’s life story begins to develop in early childhood with the development of the cognitive self. The specific construction of the story will be heavily influenced by adult led conversations shaped by the family and cultural values the child is born into. Life stories convey who we are, for example our beliefs about gender norms, and are built selectively from autobiographical memories. A person will be motivated by their current goals to emphasise aspects to of their history and personality through the reconstruction of the past that maximise positive affect in that particular context. Adult child reminiscence aids the organisation of these memories which are linked together by themes and activated by cues in the environment. Adults also have the capacity to teach children to enjoy the positive feelings linked to memories and to distance themselves from negative emotion attached to memory by stepping back and asking why an event is unpleasant.