Adult Recollections Of Childhood

While contemporary research has revealed the extent of young children's event memories, for over a century it has been clear that most adults can consciously recollect few memories of early childhood (Pillemer & White, 1989; Rubin, 1982). In turn of the century Vienna, Freud noted that most adults had difficulty retrieving memories from before they were 6 to 8 years old (Freud, 1920/1953), and this "amnesia" for childhood experiences has also interested contemporary theorists (Howe & Courage, 1993; Leichtman & Ceci, 1993; Perner & Ruffman, 1995). Modern studies conducted in the United States have concluded that, on average, adults are unable to consciously recollect events experienced before the age of 3.5 years (Kihlstrom & Harackiewicz, 1982; Pillemer & White, 1989; Sheingold & Tenney, 1982). For example, Wetzler and Sweeney's (1986) analysis of Rubin's (1982) data showed disproportionate deficits in memory for events occurring before age 3 years in comparison with those occurring afterward.

The revelation that meaningful cultural differences exist in both parental conversation styles and young children's narrative reports inspires renewed consideration of cross-cultural data on adult long-term event memory. A number of studies have attested to normative cultural variations in the date of adults' earliest memories and the qualitative characteristics of their autobiographical reports. Further, several studies have been conducted in interdependently oriented cultures—some with comparative U.S. samples—and speak to the implications of the independent-interdependent distinction for memory. The studies noted below provide clues regarding the way that early socialization may influence long-term memories of childhood.

Otoya (1988) compared adult autobiographical memory across cultures, focusing on bilingual adults proficient in both Spanish and English. Half of the sample was monocultural, consisting of individuals who grew up in bilingual families in the United States, while the other half was bicultural, consisting of individuals who moved to the United States from Central or South America some time after their sixth birthdays. Participants reported the first three memories they could think of from before the age of 8, and then dated each memory. Otoya found that monocultural participants dated their earliest memories at 3.8 years of age on average, while bicultural participants dated their earliest memories at 5.1 years of age.

One interpretation of these results is that the abrupt shift that bicultural participants experienced in moving to the United States interfered with their ability to retrieve memories from before the move (Otoya, 1988; Pillemer & White, 1989). This interpretation fits with the proposal that any dramatic transition in a child's social environment will render preexisting memories more difficult to retrieve (Neisser, 1967; Schactel, 1947). Just as continuity in the retrieval environment should facilitate recall by providing a rich variety of contextual cues to earlier events, abrupt changes in a child's mindset may inhibit later memory by minimizing associations between the present and past.

While environmental transitions during childhood may indeed have contributed to the monocul-tural-bicultural difference Otoya recorded in the age of earliest memory, more recent international data has suggested another plausible explanation. This difference may have been due to subtle variations in the children's environments prior to the age at which the bicultural participants moved. Although parents of individuals in the two samples were raised in similar cultural milieus, for the participants themselves, growing up in the United States versus Central or South America may have introduced autobiographically relevant environmental differences. For example, while early parent-child conversations may have been similar for participants from the two samples, discussions with adults outside the family, in a larger society with less homogeneity and different values than those of the Latin American world, may have contributed to monocultural participants' ability to recall earlier memories.

The factors present early in life that might contribute to such effects on adult autobiography were highlighted by a number of studies conducted with Asian populations. As discussed earlier, living in a culture focused on interpersonal harmony and attention to others, in which attention to the self is discouraged and talk about the personal past is uncommon, appears to influence the nature of preschoolers' autobiographical reports. It follows that adults' reports of their own life experiences should reflect the normative differences in cultural orientation captured by the independent-interdependent distinction, and that memories of early life events—from the period during which normative narrative structures are first being absorbed—might be especially vulnerable to cultural differences.

Mullen's (1994) research appeared to support this connection. In a series of questionnaire studies, Mullen found that, on average, the earliest memories reported by a mixed group of Asians and Asian Americans were approximately 6 months later than those of White Americans. Subsequent comparison of the age of earliest memories of native Koreans and White Americans revealed an even larger difference of 16.7 months in the same direction (Mullen & Yi, 1995). These results relate provocatively to the pattern of findings reported in studies of Korean children: Korean parents' low-elaborative style of past event discussion and Korean children's abbreviated manner of discussing the past may indicate little early focus on the personal past and, consequently, few explicit, verbally accessible adult memories of specific early events.

In a recent study contrasting the memories of two cultural groups in New Zealand, Hayne and MacDonald (2003) were able to draw a similar connection between a global focus on the past and memory outcomes. The researchers asked Maori and Pakeha (Caucasian New Zealand) college students to provide written autobiographical accounts of their earliest memories. The researchers noted that Maori culture emphasizes richly descriptive retellings of the past in the form of stories, dances and legends, and thus predicted that Maori students might have earlier autobiographical memories than Pakeha students. The data confirmed this prediction, indicating that Maoris' earliest memories were on average dated from around 32 months of age, versus 42 months for Pakeha.

In a study of 255 Chinese adults, Wang, Leichtman, and White (1998) obtained findings that complement the foregoing data. High school and college students living in Beijing were asked to write down and date their earliest memory, and then to provide three additional childhood memories. The results indicated that, on average, Chinese adults' earliest memory dated from 3 years 9 months; several months later than typical findings among U.S. populations.

In addition, this study evaluated the influence of a number of specific factors in children's environments on adult autobiographical memories. Regression models including cohort and other factors of interest as covariates were used in analyzing the results, so that the effects reported below are independent of the historical timing of participants' births. A central question was whether the memories of participants who grew up as only children (N = 99) would differ from those who grew up with siblings (N = 156). The one-child policy, in place in China since 1979, provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the role of family structure in influencing autobiographical memory among persons from otherwise equivalent backgrounds. Significant literature has suggested that the 4-2-1 syndrome present in Chinese only child families, whereby four grandparents and two parents focus completely on one child, may create an environment that departs considerably from traditional Chinese collectivist values (Lee, 1992). Some reports have characterized Chinese only children, popularly described as "little emperors," as more self-centered, willful, and egocentric, and less disciplined, obedient, and other-oriented than children from larger families (Fan, 1994; Jiao, Ji, & Jing, 1986; Wang et al., 1983). These differences amount to a less traditionally interdependent orientation among children from only child families. A central question was how differences in the extent to which children from each type of family were encouraged to focus on themselves would be reflected in their later autobiographical memories of childhood.

To evaluate this question, all participants completed two written questionnaires in Chinese. The first, a version of Kuhn and McPartland's (1954) Twenty Statements Test eliciting self-descriptions, asked participants to fill in blanks in repeated sentences phrased "I am_." The second asked participants to describe and date their earliest memory and to do the same for three other childhood memories. The results confirmed expectations of differences between only child and sibling child groups on both measures. Importantly, for each analysis reported below, contrasts between only-child participants and firstborns showed the same results as those reported for only child and all sibling child participants. Thus, although firstborns were only children before the births of their first sibling (for an average of 4.37 years in this sample), this early experience did not result in their resembling only children on any relevant measures.

Each answer to the Twenty Statements Test was categorized as an expression of a private, collective, or public self-description. This scoring method has been used in past studies as an index of how self-related information is differentially organized in memory across individuals (Bochner, 1994). Private self-descriptions focus on personal traits, states, or behaviors (e.g., "I am tall, intelligent, nervous."), collective self-descriptions focus on group membership (e.g., "I am a girl, a member of the Grimaldi family, a Catholic."), and public self-descriptions focus on the way in which a person interacts with or is viewed by others (e.g., "I am a person others view as kind." "I am someone who likes to help other people.") (Greenwald & Pratkanis, 1984; Triandis, 1989). Past work has indicated that participants from independent cultures typically provide overwhelmingly private self-descriptions, while participants from interdependent cultures provide more collective self-descriptions (Bochner, 1994; Trafimow,

Triandis, & Goto, 1991). Such differences presumably stem from independently oriented participants giving priority to personal values and goals, and having richly furnished, highly organized, and readily accessible sets of information about the private self in memory. In contrast, interdependently oriented persons focus significantly on the values and goals of the group and, thus, have similarly rich and accessible information regarding the collective self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1989).

This same contrast was apparent in the analysis of Chinese only and sibling child participants. Only child participants reported more private self-descriptions and fewer collective self-descriptions than sibling child participants. These findings support the notion that children from the two family structures may organize self-relevant information differently, despite the fact that they are part of the same larger cultural milieu.

In terms of autobiographical memories, only-child participants reported earliest memories dated from 39 months, while siblings reported earliest memories that were dated from 47.7 months, or almost 9 months later. The nature of the reported memories also differed between groups on a number of qualitative dimensions: only-child participants reported fewer memories focusing on social interactions, more memories focusing on personal experiences and feelings, fewer memories focusing on family, and more memories focusing solely on themselves. In addition, only-child participants reported a greater number of memories that were specific in nature (i.e., referring to one point in time events) than their sibling counterparts. Finally, only-child participants' memories contained a lower ratio of other-self mentions, indicating a differentially greater focus on their own past thoughts and activities. In addition to these between group differences, across the sample as a whole, participants' scores on the self-description questionnaire were predictive of a number of the autobiographical memory measures. Private self-description scores were positively related to memory narrative volume, mentions of the self, and the specificity of autobiographical memories, while collective self-description scores were negatively related to each. This combined evidence suggests a relationship between variables in the participants' early environments that affected the extent of focus on the self, and the degree and content of the autobiographical memories that remained accessible into adulthood.

Independent of family status, participants who attended preschool reported earliest memories that were 11 months earlier than those who did not and, the earlier preschool attendance began, the earlier was the first memory reported. Similarly, the employment status of participants' mothers during their childhood years was related to participants' autobiographical memories; a striking finding, given that all participants were top scholars enrolled in highly elite Chinese schools at the time of the study. Participants whose mothers either were professionals or urban workers had memories dating from 40 and 45 months on average, respectively, while participants whose mothers were farmers during their childhoods had memories dating from the later period of 56 months. This contrast is perhaps best conceived of as a rural-urban distinction. It is possible that socialization differences, such as farmers' children's engagement in collaborative work and the urban environment's greater emphasis on competition, self-actualization, and adaptation to modernization affected the degree to which participants focused on autobiographical events during childhood and, consequently, recalled them later.

In a study that further explored memories of childhood in rural versus urban populations, Leicht-man, et al. (2003) focused on a sample of a total of 111 adults from three populations. The first group of participants lived in a remote village of goatherds in southern India. The second group lived in urban Bangalore and was of a comparable, low socio-economic status (SES). The third group was comprised of upper middle-class European Americans living in an urban region of the northeastern United States. In the Indian samples, a trained interviewer raised in the same region as the participants conducted interviews in the regional language, Kanada, while Americans were interviewed in English. The interviewer asked participants a series of scripted questions about autobiographical memory, beginning with an open-ended question asking whether they recalled any events from childhood. The interviewer asked participants to recount their childhood memories, and further prompted participants to relate any happy events and any sad events that they could recall. For each memory provided, the researcher asked participants their age at the time of the event.

In the Indian data, only 12% of participants in the rural sample and 30% of participants in the urban sample reported a specific event memory from childhood during the interview. Specific event memories were those that referred to a one point in time event (e.g., "the day my father fell into the well"), as opposed to routine or scripted activities (e.g., "going to school"). While all participants in the rural sample who reported a specific memory provided only one during the interview, 17% of participants in the urban sample provided two or more memories. Most participants in both samples did not know their own birth dates, and could not date their memories. However, of six urban participants who stated their age at the time of the events they recollected, age estimates ranged between 6 and 11 years. These data contrast dramatically with those taken from the American population, where 69% of participants reported recalling at least one specific childhood memory from childhood, and the spontaneous mention of dates of occurrence ranged between 3 and 12 years.

To examine whether there were systematic differences in the qualitative aspects of the rural and urban Indian participants' reports, 10 American raters, blind to all aspects of the study, assisted in a coding task. Raters were given a stack of 69 index cards, each with a single memory provided by a rural Indian, urban Indian, or an American control participant (one third each) in response to the same memory questions. All Indian memories that appeared on the cards were English translations, and culturally identifying information (e.g., names of Indian foods, local place references) was replaced with neutral information. (Some memories included in the rural selections were obtained from a supplementary sample of 32 rural participants who also were asked memory questions.) The memories from each group were randomly selected after eliminating all responses in which participants could not provide a memory. The number of words in each memory segment was similar, on average, for the three groups. The cards were shuffled randomly, so that memories from all three groups of participants were mixed.

Raters came to the laboratory and were told that they were to read over the cards and sort them into two approximately equal piles. They were told, "We've been interviewing people about their autobiographical memories. People differ in how vividly they remember and talk about past events. Some peoples' reports reflect very rich, vivid memories of their experiences—it seems like the events just happened yesterday and they recall every detail. Other people have fuzzier, weaker, more skeletal memories of past events, and their reports appear comparatively impoverished, lacking in vividness and richness of details." Participants were then asked to read over the cards and sort them into two approximately equal piles, placing half the cards in a box representing rich, vivid memories and the other half in a box representing relatively impoverished, skeletal reports of past events.

The cumulative results of this sorting revealed distinct patterns for memories of participants from the three populations. Sixty-three percent of those memories provided by Americans were placed in the box representing rich memories, with only 37% placed in the box representing poor memories. Similarly, 54% of memories from urban Indians were rated as rich, while 46% were rated as poor. In contrast, only 27% of rural Indian memories were rated as rich, while 73% were rated as poor. This gross rating scheme thus captured a parallel with the urban-rural difference that Wang et al. (1998) found among Chinese participants: Living in an urban area appears to increase access to early event memories, and to make reports of those memories more vivid and detailed. Notably, although there was a slight difference in years of education favoring urban participants in this study, there was no significant effect of educational status on the number or qualitative characteristics of participants' memories.

By what mechanism might urbanization influence autobiographical memory? As noted in the discussion of Wang et al.'s (1998) Chinese results, differences in general aspects of participants' social environments may have contributed to the later, more skeletal autobiographical reports documented among rural samples. In addition, the informal reactions of Indian participants provide insight into a broader explanation. A large percentage of rural Indian participants responded to questions about their autobiographical memories with an attitude of incredulity. Typically, participants said, "Why think about the past? The past is just as the future" or "It's a silly waste of time to think about the events of one's life; such thinking changes nothing."

When participants were asked directly whether, and under what circumstances they reminisced about past events, rural participants responded almost universally that they rarely did so. In contrast, urban participants seemed more comfortable reflecting on and sharing their life memories, and did not display the same attitude of indifference toward the details of specific life experiences. Even more strikingly, American participants often noted that their personal memories were an integral part of themselves, that such memories were extremely important to them, and that they commonly reflected on past experiences. This contrast in the attitudes of the two groups may reflect a difference in the need to think about the past in response to change. In rural Indian villages, lifestyles are much as they were generations ago and anticipated changes are few. In urban India or in the United States, deciding on a life course and constantly adapting to the changing demands of modern, industrialized society may increase individuals' attention to the unique aspects of their personalities and situations. This may lead to a relatively more introspective attitude toward the personal past. Further, as Wang (2003) noted, the continual novelty and change inherent in urban life provides ample material for the construal of autobiographical stories, whereas the redundancy of rural life may not. Whatever the complete explanation for their existence, urban/rural differences underscore the multiple components of the social environment that may affect the nature of autobiographical memories.

In a provocative addition to the literature on the link between early socialization and long-term personal event memories, Weigle and Bauer (2000) studied adults who had been deaf from birth, but had hearing parents, along with age and gender-matched hearing control participants. The rationale for studying these two populations was the idea that the linguistic environment of early childhood would have been relatively impoverished for the deaf participants, and language acquisition delayed until they were exposed to American Sign Language (ASL). Researchers interviewed deaf participants in ASL and hearing participants in spoken English, prompting for memories of both earliest childhood and later years (after age 10). One potential result would have been later first memories in deaf subjects, due to the importance of early language in supporting encoding and storage. In fact, the findings indicated no significant between-group differences in the timing of earliest memories. However, there were differences in the nature of the memories of the two groups in the predicted direction, in that deaf participants provided narratives that were less linguistically dense, included less visual-spatial information, and included fewer categories of information in general. The authors speculated that differences in the early environment may have prompted deaf participants to take a less linguistically dependent avenue in the retention of autobiographical events.

It is important to note that the nature and timing of childhood memories may vary as a function of the events being remembered. This point was underscored by Usher and Neisser's (1993) data on the childhood memories of American college students. In a written survey, participants were prompted to remember various episodes that occurred when they were very young. Participants were able to recall hospitalizations or the birth of siblings from the time they were between 2 and 3 years old. In contrast, they recalled deaths in the family or moves to new homes only if these events happened after age 3. Retrospective ratings of emotion and amount of postevent rehearsal were similar across events, such that these factors did not explain the differences between events. What may have been significant was the amount of preparation children received prior to the events, in discussion with parents and other significant adults. While Usher and Neisser's findings indicated group-level differences between various categories of events, the characteristics of the events driving these differences remain to be explained. It may be that as a function of socially shared meanings, for most children particular events share common features that are likely to influence their duration in long-term memory. For instance, a hospitalization may hold similar meaning, emotion, and salience for most children, despite the particular circumstances under which it occurs. Thus, although unique elements of such an event for an individual child could also influence later event memory, the particular shared cultural context in which an event occurs could be a powerful determinant of whether and how it is eventually remembered.

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