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Active Encoding;Autobiographical Memory;Cognitive Abilities;Memory;Passive Encoding;Self-Reference Effect (SRE)


Joseph Casey



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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


The self-reference effect (SRE) is the enhanced memory for information encoded with reference to oneself relative to information encoded with reference to another non-intimate person or the linguistic properties of a word (Rogers et al., 1977). This effect is measured with an encoding task and a surprise recall and/or recognition task. An important distinction among encoding tasks is whether they involve active or passive engagement with the to-be-remembered information. Tasks with active engagement require the participant to identify the relation between the referent and target object and then to perform a mental (e.g., evaluate desirability of objects) or physical (e.g., sort cards) action based on that relation. On the contrary, tasks with passive engagement only require the participant to identify the relation (e.g., state it aloud). It is speculated that actively engaging with the to-be-remembered information bolsters one's attention and depth of processing, and thereby improves encoding and later retrieval (e.g., Sui & Zhu, 2005). Although adults demonstrate greater SRE following active encoding tasks (Turk et al., 2008), the magnitude of the SRE of 4- to 6-year-old's does not differ across encoding tasks (Cunningham et al., 2014; Ross et al., 2020). Specifically, Cunningham et al. (2014) and Ross et al. (2020) compared a passive encoding task with an active encoding task involving mental judgement. No study has compared young children’s SRE on active encoding tasks that involve physical engagement with that of mentally active encoding tasks and passive encoding tasks. Thus, one goal of the present study was to evaluate the presence and magnitude of the SRE across these encoding tasks among 4- to 6-year-olds. Another goal of the present study was to examine the cognitive abilities associated with the SRE among 4- to 6-year-olds. Previous studies have examined the role of receptive vocabulary (Cunningham et al., 2013), theory of mind (Cunningham et al., 2013), and short-term auditory memory (Cunningham et al., 2014), but these constructs were not predictive of 4- to 6-year-olds’ memory advantage for self-referent information. Another previous study demonstrated the link between SRE and autobiographical memory (Ross et al., 2020). The present study aimed to replicate and extend the current body of literature by examining the role of expressive language abilities, receptive language abilities, auditory short-term memory, autobiographical memory, visual short-term memory, processing speed, theory of mind, cognitive flexibility, and attention. Participants were 4- to 6-year-old children living in Canada recruited on social media and from private schools, daycares, and community agencies. Parents completed online versions of a brief demographic questionnaire and the ADHD Rating Scale – IV, Home Version. Children met with a researcher virtually on Microsoft Teams to complete the SRE tasks as well as eight other tasks that were chosen as measures of certain cognitive abilities. Results indicated that only 6-year-olds correctly identified more self-referent objects as previously seen than other-referent objects as previously seen (recognition memory), and 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds correctly sourced more self-referent objects as previously seen with their photograph than other-referent objects as previously seen with the control child’s photograph (source memory). The SRE was present with equal magnitude across active and passive encoding conditions. The results provide further evidence of the robust and influential nature of self-concept on young children’s memory. Additional analyses demonstrated that young children’s preferential source memory for self-referent information was predicted by autobiographical memory. Strengths and limitations of the current findings as well as applications and considerations for future research are discussed.