Dr. Nicole Rosa is a college fellow in the psychology department at Harvard University whose research focuses on factors that promote healthy ageing, cognitive changes with age, and the psychology of disability. Before obtaining her PhD in social developmental psychology from Brandeis University, she worked in outpatient mental health as a licensed independent clinical social worker and ran a program aimed at decreasing mental health and substance abuse issues among older adults.
ElderBranch interviewed Dr. Rosa to discuss her paper, “False Memory in Aging Resulting From Self-Referential Processing,” which she wrote with Dr. Angela Gutchess of Brandeis University.
What led you to examine the relationship between self-referencing and false memory? Why is this important?
Self-reference refers to the idea that when we are able to make a personal connection to new information, it is easier to remember later on. Most research on self-reference has focused on ways in which it helps memory, but I was interested in whether or not it may also contribute to memory errors.
False memory occurs whenever we mistakenly believe we have seen or heard information that is actually new or when our memory of an event differs from what really occurred. These types of errors occur more often when new information feels familiar or is similar to other experiences.
Because the self is very familiar and information that is connected to the self is likely to be similar, it was possible that self-reference may increase memory errors just as much as it helps memory. It is important to not only understand what helps us to remember, but also what could be leading us astray and causing false, or erroneous, memories.
Please describe your study. What were your in-going hypotheses? What method did you use to test them?
Based on work by Rogers and colleagues (1977; 1979), we began with the hypothesis that self-reference would help people remember old information but that it would also hurt memory by making people more likely to say that new information was old, especially when the new information had a strong connection to the self.
Because older adults experience greater rates of memory errors, we expected the pattern of memory error due to self-reference to be particularly strong for older adults. For example, we expected to find that a person who is intelligent would think they that had previously seen the word ‘smart’ when in fact it was a new word.
Through two experiments, we asked older and younger adults to rate adjectives (e.g.: intelligent, thoughtful) for self-descriptiveness (‘how well does this words describe you?’) and for commonness (‘how common is the word?’).
Participants were asked to rate 120 words during an encoding, or learning, stage. They then completed a memory test during which they were shown 240 words and asked to indicate whether each word was old or new. Finally, they were asked to provide ratings of self-descriptiveness or commonness on the 120 words that were new during the memory test.
These ratings of the new words allowed us to see if words that were more self-descriptive led to higher rates of false memory than words that were judged to be less self-descriptive.
What were your key findings?
As information became more self-descriptive, participants were more likely to correctly remember having seen an old word. But at the same time, participants were also more likely to think that they had previously seen new words that were rated as highly self-descriptive.
The same was not true for words rated for commonness. Participants were not more likely to remember old words that were judged to be very common, nor were they likely to falsely recall having seen common new words. This pattern was especially true for older adults.
Would you make any specific recommendations to care givers as a result of your findings?
There is a wide body of literature that shows us that self-reference provides a benefit in memory and helps us to connect with and remember new information (see Symons & Johnson, 1997 for a review). This is true for both older and younger adults.
In fact, self-reference is one aspect of memory that seems to be preserved in aging. Therefore, if we are trying to learn or remember new information, it may help to connect it to the self in some way.
But given our findings, it is important to use caution when we rely on this information and to remember that just because information feels very familiar does not necessarily mean that it is accurate.
What are the implications of your findings?
Our findings help us to better understand how memory changes with age and the ways in which we use others and ourselves in memory. They also point to the fact that self-reference may not only benefit memory but may lead to an increase in memory errors, which will detract from overall memory performance.
What are the next steps to further your work in this area?
I recently have been exploring how self and others are used in memory among people with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Despite the memory losses typically associated with AD, people with AD retain a sense of self into the later stages of the disease.
Recent work by others (Kalenzaga, Bugaiska, & Clarys, 2013; Kalenzaga & Clarys, 2013) has shown some level of self-reference benefit in people with mild-AD. I hope to continue to explore this possibility. If current findings persist, it is possible that people with memory loss could be trained to utilize connections to the self and others to better remember new information.
Is there anything else you feel it is important to add to help our audience fully understand your research into self-referencing and false memory or its significance?
As we age, we tend to hold information in memory for shorter periods of time. We also begin to lose the specific details and focus more on the general gist of a memory. Self-reference is a tool that can be used to benefit memory and is an aspect of memory that does not suffer the same rate of decline as seen in other areas of memory.
However, as information becomes more familiar or more similar, it may be harder to accurately distinguish between old and new information, which puts us at risk for increased memory errors. Therefore, while self-reference can help us to remember more details and maintain information in memory for longer periods of time, it is important to keep the risk of false memory for highly self-related information in mind.