Self Reference Memory Recognition

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27/04/17 Psychology Reference this

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Self Reference Memory Recognition

The Self Reference Effect: Are You Talking About Me?


The self reference experiment, Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, (1977), examines which encoding tasks are superior in memory recognition. In the present study participants completed a series of questions that asked if a word either described them (self reference) or if the word had an ‘e’ (structural). A recognition task was given at the end to identify which was superior in memory recognition. Self-words are recognized more accurately than e-words. A further look into the depth of processing of the two types of encoding tasks revealed that self reference words take longer to process than the e-words.

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The Self Reference Effect: Are You Talking About Me?

When reading a novel, or studying for a test, people often come across various adjectives that are self-descriptive, which later might be recalled. New inputs for personality could be easy to associate to self and produces higher recognition. The self is a superior encoding task that endorses memory traces as the individual to process information by relating it to themselves (Klein & Kihlstrom, 1986).

Processing of traits should be better than nouns because people more commonly judge among trait words than nouns since adjectives are self descriptive (Symons & Johnson, 1997). The typical self reference task uses traits as stimulus items more than 80% of the time (Symons & Johnson, 1997).The self serves as an active role in processing personal data as individual’s process information by interpreting and referring it to themselves (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977, p. 680).

The original self reference study, (Roger’s et. al., 1977) researched how subjects processed words on various depths, using four different encoding tasks. Structural encoding was rated by asking about the physical form of the word, phonemic encoding was rated by asking if the stimulus rhymed with another word, semantic encoding questioned the meaning of the word, and the self-referent encoding task asked if the word described the participant.

The four encoding tasks were followed by a recall task and the results of the study indicated that the self-reference effect is superior for encoding processes. The memory-enhancing effects of self-reference are frequently explained by the self being a complex structure of memory (McCaul & Maki, 1984).

The self is superior at memory as it contains an abstracted record of a person’s past experience with personal data (Rogers, et. al., 1977). Encoding may be enhanced by relevance making the material to be remembered personally relevant (Bower & Gilligan, 1979). People generally know more about themselves and this assisted memory enhancing encoding indicates superiority (Markus, 1977). Information pertaining to the self captures the attention of the individual which in turn produces deeper processing.

The self is well developed and often used in memory that promotes both elaboration and organization of encoded information, which originates superiority (Symons & Johnson, 1997). By recalling exterior material in memory to embellish the encoded representation of the word, recall is beneficial as it shows different ways of retrieving information (Klein, et. al., 1989).

Individuals interpret and attempt to remember by referring to self experiences. The self-reference effect has been superior as individuals are interested in self relating (Klein, Loftus, & Burton, 1989). This organization of memory demonstrates that individuals experience a series of processes to encode information.

Depth of processing theory assumes that recall is a function of memory at the time of encoding as longer encoding took longer to complete and were associated with higher levels of performance on the following memory test (Craik & Tulving, 1975). Different responses in the encoding tasks demonstrate differences in the processes used to encode stimulus materials, such as list words. Depth of processing proposed by Craik and Lockhart (1972), compares the response produced by encoding tasks that differ in depth, or range of processing (Craik & Tulving, 1975).

Retention of memory at the time of encoding is determined by the nature of encoding operations carried out on material at hand (Klein & Kihlstrom, 1986). Shallow encoding, such a structural, is merely looking at the physical aspect of the written word. The present study predicts that the deeper processing in the self reference effect will yield superior recognition as it internalizes the word being processed.

According to Craik and Tulving (1975), deeper level questions would take longer to answer but show more elaborate encoding which in turn would support higher recognition and recall performance. It is the depth of processing and how deeper analysis yields superior memory retention instead of the processing time. The new self referencing stimulus conveys a degree of richness and fullness to the input because of the amount of previous experience personified in the self (Roger’s et. al., 1977).

Processing time is not a good indicator of depth, but rather the depth of encoding. In Craik and Tulving’s study (1975), elaboration does not happen for structural encoding since it does not require much elaboration. Structural is looking at the physical structure and that is what is processed. No other encoding is taking place at that time. Depth of processing is seen as a continuum and one precedes the other (Rogers, et. al., 1977).

The interaction between previous experience with personal data and new stimulus input. Craik and Tulving (1975) support that it is the depth of processing, not the amount of processing time that leads to higher retention and deeper encoding. It is predicted that self reference rating would produce higher recognition at a deeper level, while structural encoding only encodes to a specific level. Results from Craik and Tulving’s (1975)

Experiment 1 showed that different encoding questions led to different response latencies; questions about the surface form of the word were answered comparatively rapidly, while more abstract questions about the word’s meaning took longer to answer. It was found that a question concerning the word’s meaning yielded higher memory performance than question’s concerning the word’s physical characteristics. It is clear that what determines the level of recognition is not intention to learn, the amount of effort involved, rather it is the qualitative nature of the task, the kind of operations carried out on the items, that determines retention (Craik & Tulving, 1975).

The present study is a replication of Roger’s study, however used only the structural vs. self-reference processes followed by a recognition task. Previous research has shown people remember information better when it is related to the self instead of other semantic processing (McCaul& Maki, 1984). Within the present study, participants will judge a word based on two encoding tasks. The structural encoding task will ask the participant to inspect the structure of the stimulus item rather than extract the meaning of the word by asking about the superficial quality (does this word have an ‘e’?).

The self reference task will ask words that are processed in terms of themselves (does this word describe you?) The hit rate, words that are correctly identified will, be measured against the hit rate of the self reference words after their recognition test. The false alarm rate, words mistaken as an original word, is also measure. Processing time is also measured to show that deeper processing, such as self referencing, takes longer to process, however leads to superior recall.

The present study examines whether this effect will appear when using a recognition task to examine the self reference effect. The hypothesis is that self referencing words will be correctly recognized more than structural words when given a recognition task on trait adjectives. Self referent words will also take longer to process, however lead to better retention and produce higher levels of recall.


Participants were 57 undergraduates from St. Mary’s University (45 women and 12 men) who voluntarily participated in the experiment. Students completed the experiment online at Practice screens (one for each question) were displayed. When the experiment began, one of two questions was shown; either “Does this word have an ‘e’” or “Does this word describe you?” One second later, a word appeared along with choice buttons marked “Yes” and “No.”

The words were drawn from a fixed set of 20, with half being randomly assigned to be presented along with the “self” question and half with the e-question. In addition to randomly assigning words to the self- or e-word category, the order in which words appeared was random for each participant. Half the words had an ‘e’, and half of the words were socially undesirable. Because of the manipulation, the e-questions and self-questions were expected to produce a relatively equal number of yes and no responses.

Twenty encoding trials were presented serially separated by a 1.5 second “Get Ready for the Next Question” signal. Although the instructions stressed completing the task quickly and that words only appear for a second, in actuality, the words remained on screen until the participants answered. After reading the instructions and answering “yes” or “no” for the twenty words, there was a 20-second delay (mainly to reduce recency effects). After the delay, the participants completed a recognition task that intermixed 20 foils with the 20 original words in a new random order.

The 20 foils were strong, patient, polite, flexible, calm, logical, frugal, modest, bashful, clean, liberal, quiet, emotional, religious, eccentric, aggressive, immature, materialistic, irritable, and somber. If participant incorrectly identified a foil as an original word, the response would be counted as a false alarm. Participants were asked to indicate whether the word was one of the words from earlier in the experiment. After the recognition task, a screen provided the results, and a debriefing screen explained the details of the experiment.

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To provide a composite measure of discrimination, the hit rate (number of words recognized correctly) and false alarm rate (foil words mistakenly identified) for the two tasks were combined to create a single discrimination index. A paired-samples t test was used to determine which encoding task produced greater discrimination. A significant difference was found between the self reference and ‘e’ words tasks using the discrimination index, t(56) = 7.15, p < .001. Discrimination was greater with self reference words (M =.98, SD = .03) rather than ‘e’ words (M =.91, SD = .08).

Further analyses compared the hit rate and false alarm rates between the self reference and ‘e’ words. As shown in Figure 1, there was a significant difference (t(56) = 8.88, p < .001) between the number of words correctly identified in the self reference task (M = .95, SD = .08) and the structural ‘e’ words task (M = .71, SD = .20) There was no significant difference, however, in the false alarm rates between self reference and ‘e’ words.

In addition to hit rates and false alarm rates, the time participants spent answering the ‘e’ questions and self-reference questions was also recorded. There was a significant difference (t(56) = 2.20, p < .05) in the time spent processing self reference words (M = 8.32, SD =3.83) and ‘e’ words (M =7.22, SD = 3.48. The participants devoted more time to studying self reference words rather than ‘e’ words (see Table 1).


The present study indicates that self referencing words were correctly recognized more than structural words when given a recognition task on trait adjectives. Discrimination was higher for self referencing words as previously researched by (Rogers, et. al. 1977). The two encoding tasks were also measured on their processing time which revealed that self referent words took longer to process, however lead to better retention and produced higher levels of recall.

The level of analysis is high for self reference information and merely structural for the ‘e’ words. With regard to depth of processing, Craik and Lockhart (1972) suggested that, when other things are held constant, deeper levels of processing would require longer processing time. This cannot always be taken as an indicator of depth, rather the encoding task and retention are a better measure which is proven by the results shown. Future research should control for variation and provide time and measure for depth of processing.

Studies show that the motivational influence of the self in persuasion is seen as people appeal more to self referencing material. Self reference, when the stimulus words are trait adjectives, are recalled more because trait dimensions are the most common attributes along which people judge themselves (Pahl & Eiser, 2006). In particular, people commonly identify certain trait adjectives as more socially desirable than other adjectives, a process that is part of self referencing (Ferguson, et al. (1983).

In a study by D’Argembeau, Comblain, & Linden (2005), the tendency to attribute another person’s behavior as being caused by the individual, but one’s own behavior to situations occurs because the self dominates the individual’s perspective. Similarly, both self-serving biases and defense mechanisms have been attributed to self-protective or self-enhancing motives (Symons & Johnson, 1997).

Future research should look into positive and negative traits using the self reference effect to see which leads to higher recall. Pahl and Eiser (2006), asked participants to describe their most significant characteristics and generally the responses were positively worded terms. According to D’Argembeau (2005), positive information is better recalled than negative information. This could be due to self-enhancement, current goals of the participant, and the valence of the stimulus.

Self reference effects are obtained because subjects are rating the words for their desirability when they decide if traits describe themselves (Ferguson, Rule and Carlson). The self plays a powerful role in memory and holds superiority in the encoding tasks.


Bower, G. H. & Gilligan, S. G. (1979). Remembering information related to one’s self. [Electronic version]. Journal of Research in Personality, 13, 420-432.

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D’Argembeau, A., Comblain, C., & Van der Linden, M. (2005). Affective valence and the self-reference effect: Influence of retrieval conditions. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 457-466.

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Klein, S. B., Burton, H. A., & Loftus, J. (1989). Two self-reference effects: The importance of distinguishing between self-descriptiveness judgments and autobiographical retrieval in self-referent encoding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 853-865.

Levine, G (2003). Self Reference Experiment [Data file], K. D. & Maki, R. H. (1984). Self-reference versus desirability ratings and memory for traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 953-955.

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