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A Cross-Cultural Examination of Autobiographical Memories of Highly Emotional Life Events

Project: Research

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Description

This Ph. D. dissertation describes a large-scale survey designed to investigate autobiographical memories of highly emotional negative and positive life events across cultures. The aim of this doctoral research project was to determine whether existing research findings on the event centrality, lifespan distribution, and content of autobiographical memories of highly negative and positive life events could be extended to different cultures. We recruited participants older than 40 years of age, in four different countries, representing collectivistic (Mexico, Greenland, and China) and individualistic (Denmark) cultures. To our knowledge, the studies in this dissertation are the first cross-cultural studies to investigate the event centrality, lifespan distribution, and content of autobiographical memories of highly emotional life events.
In Article 1 (Zaragoza Scherman, Salgado, Shao, & Berntsen, 2014c), we reported the results of a study that investigated the event centrality of highly emotional life events in identity and life stories as a function of emotional distress and well-being across cultures. Event centrality refers to the potential of a life event to become an important element in an individual’s identity and life story, to transform his or her world views, and to be a landmark in his or her personal life story.
In Article 2 (Zaragoza Scherman, Salgado, Shao, & Berntsen, 2014b), we reported the results of a study that investigated the lifespan distribution and the content of memories of highly emotional life events across cultures. The lifespan distribution refers to the temporal location of autobiographical memories during an individual’s lifespan: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. In this article, the content of the memory refers (1) to whether the recalled life events are of events contained in the cultural life script of that individual’s country and (2) whom the memory is about. The cultural life script contains semantic information about the timing and sequencing of major transitional life events (e.g., “getting married” and “having children”) individuals in a given culture are expected to experience during their lifetime (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004). To analyze the content of the memories and determine if each individual memory referred to a life event contained in the relevant country’s life script, we developed the cultural life scripts of Mexico, Greenland, China, and Denmark, as discussed in detail in a later section. However, these particular cultural life scripts are not discussed in Article 2. They are only shown and briefly discussed in this introduction.
In Article 3 (Zaragoza Scherman, 2013), I conducted a cross-cultural reanalysis of data from seven studies that had examined cultural life scripts in different countries. Life scripts are relevant to the investigation of autobiographical memory as they guide recall of highly emotional life events, influencing the lifespan distribution and the content of autobiographical memories (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Berntsen et al., 2011; Collins et al., 2007). The seven studies I reanalyzed applied the same methodology that I used to develop the cultural life scripts of Mexico, Greenland, China, and Denmark, which were employed to analyze the content of the memories in Article 2, as mentioned above.

Key findings

This large-scale cross-cultural survey contributed significantly to the investigation of the event centrality, lifespan distribution, and content of autobiographical memories of highly emotional life events. We replicated important current findings and extended them cross-culturally. For instance, we found that the emotional valence of events determines (1) how highly emotional life events are incorporated into identity and the life story, (2) how they are associated with emotional distress and well-being, (3) what lifetime period they are more likely to be recalled from, (4) whether the life events are scripted, and (5) whom these events are about.
More generally, from the work replicated and generated in this dissertation, we can draw nine conclusions about the characteristics of autobiographical memories of highly emotional life events across cultures. Some of these conclusions draw upon findings which have been noted previously in this introduction, while other draw upon findings which are reported in the individual articles contained in the dissertation.

The conclusions were:
1. The memory of an individual’s most positive life event is more central to her or his identity and life story than the memory of her or his most negative life event (Berntsen et al., 2011; Rubin, Boals, et al., 2008; Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014c).
2. The degree of emotional distress that an individual experiences is associated with the centrality of her or his most negative life event to identity and life story (Berntsen & Rubin, 2006a; Berntsen et al., 2011; Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014c).
3. The memory of the most positive life event is similarly central to an individual’s identity and life story across Chinese, Danish, Mexican, and Greenlandic individuals (Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014c).
4. The memory of the most negative life event is more central to one’s identity and life story for Chinese individuals, compared to Danish, Mexican, or Greenlandic individuals (Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014c).
5. The memory of an individuals’s most positive life event disproportionately represents an event that occurred during her or his adolescence or early adulthood (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Berntsen et al., 2011; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003; Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014b).
6. The memory of an individual’s most negative event represents an event that occurred anytime in her or his lifetime. However, it is probable that the event occurred more recently, during the last 10 years, showing a small recency effect (Berntsen & Rubin, 2002; Berntsen et al., 2011; Rubin & Berntsen, 2003; Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014b).
7. The memory of an individual’s most positive life event is often the memory of an event contained in the cultural life script of their culture that people are expected to experience during their lifetime (Berntsen et al., 2011; Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014b).
8. In most cultures, the memory of an individual’s most positive life event is typically the memory of an event that she or he experienced personally. However, for Chinese individuals the memory of their most positive life event may be an event that someone else, other than themselves (e.g., their children), experienced personally (Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014b).
9. The memory of an individual’s most negative life event is either the memory of an event that she or he experienced personally or that someone else, such as a family member or a close relative, experienced (Zaragoza Scherman et al., 2014b).
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date15/04/201129/08/2014

ID: 220121944