Self-Reference Effect Definition
The self-reference effect refers to people’s tendency to better remember information when that information has been linked to the self than when it has not been linked to the self. In research on the self-reference effect, people are presented with a list of adjectives (e.g., intelligent, shy) and are asked to judge each word given a particular instruction. Some people are told to decide whether each word describes them. In this case, people make a decision about each word in relation to their knowledge of themselves—a self-referent comparison. Other people are instructed to decide whether each word is long—a nonself-referent comparison that requires making a decision about each word that does not use information about the self. According to the self-reference effect, if people are later asked to remember the words they rated in a memory task that they do not expect, they will be more likely to remember the words if they thought about them in relation to the self (Does the word describe them?) than if they thought about them without reference to the self (Is the word long?). Although some studies have failed to support the self-reference effect, a recent meta-analysis supports that, overall, the self-reference effect is robust.
The different instructions are thought to lead to differences in the likelihood of self-referent encoding. Encoding is the process putting information into memory, of taking a stimulus from the environment and processing it in a way that leads to storage of that stimulus in a person’s mind. In the case of the self-reference effect, the stimulus is encoded or processed with information about the self. Information about the self is highly organized in memory because people frequently use and add to their information about themselves. Therefore, information encoded with respect to self becomes part of a highly organized knowledge structure. The benefit of encoding something with respect to an organized knowledge structure is that new information is encoded more efficiently and effectively, which can lead to easier retrieval and recall. People also tend to think deeply about concepts that relate to the self. Therefore, when people are asked to think about words in relation to the self, those words benefit from deeper encoding and are better elaborated, connected, and integrated in memory. Because people habitually use the self to process information in their daily lives, they are particularly practiced at encoding information in a self-referent way. More elaborated encoding provides additional cues for words to be later retrieved from memory.
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One extension of the self-reference effect examined whether memory after self-referent judgments differed from other-referent judgments (Does this word describe someone else?). Self-referent memory is superior to other-referent memory when people are asked to rate whether words describe a person who is not well known (Does this word describe the study experimenter?). The memory advantage of self-referent encoding decreases, but is not eliminated, if people rate whether the words describe an intimate other (Does this word describe your mother?) whose characteristics may also be well-organized and elaborated in memory.
Self-Reference Effect Background and History
The first research on the self-reference effect was published by T. B. Rogers and colleagues in 1977. Research at that time was particularly interested in how personality information was organized in people’s minds, and Rogers and his colleagues set out to extend Fergus I. M. Craik’s and Endel Tulving’s research on depth of processing. The depth of processing perspective suggests that certain types of information are processed more deeply, or in a more elaborated way, than are other types of information. For example, words are better remembered when people are asked to think about them in a semantic way (Does the word mean the same thing as another word?) than when people are asked to think about them phonemically (Does the word rhyme with another word?), and are remembered least if people are asked to think about them in a structural way (Is the word written in capital letters?). These three instructions differ in the depth of processing required to make the judgment (it requires more processing to make judgments of meaning of the word compared with the sound or the structure of the word). Memory for words is weaker when depth of processing is lower. Rogers and colleagues hypothesized that self-referent encoding would involve even deeper processing than semantic encoding and would result in better memory for the words. Research supported this hypothesis, thereby supporting the idea that self-knowledge was uniquely represented in memory.
Individual Differences in Self-Reference Effect
Among people given the self-referent instructions, research consistently shows a memory bias for words that they rate as like themselves (This word describes me) compared with words that people rate as unlike themselves (This word doesn’t describe me). This suggests that the self-reference effect is strongest for traits that people actually endorse about themselves. Follow-up studies confirm this bias in various groups and situations in which the self-reference effect is observed. For example, depressed individuals show increased memory for depressed traits, and non-depressed individuals showed increased memory for nondepressed traits. People given failure feedback show a greater self-reference effect for negative traits, whereas those who are given success feedback show a greater self-reference effect for positive traits. People also differ in the degree to which they chronically think about the world in self-referent ways. People who are high in private self-consciousness are more likely than are those low in private self-consciousness to think about the world in terms of self, and low private self-conscious people are less likely to show the self-reference effect compared with high private self-conscious people. Similarly, situations in which people experience low self-awareness (e.g., people who are intoxicated) reduce the likelihood of self-referent encoding and thus the self-reference effect.
- Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677-688.
- Symons, C. S., & Johnson, B. T. (1997). The self-reference effect in memory: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 371-394.