ITHACA, N.Y. -- How American adults and preschool children recall their personal memories are consistently different from the way indigenous Chinese do, finds a Cornell University developmental psychologist. These cultural differences are important, she says, "because how we remember personal experiences has a profound impact on our self and identity."
"Americans often report lengthy, specific, emotionally elaborate memories that focus on the self as a central character," says Qi Wang, an assistant professor of human development at Cornell. "Chinese tend to give brief accounts of general routine events that center on collective activities and are often emotionally neutral. These individual-focused vs. group-oriented styles characterize the mainstream values in American and Chinese cultures, respectively."
Early childhood memories form the beginnings of what Wang calls "the autobiographical self" and provide a unique window through which to understand the interplay between memory and self, Wang says in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (August 2001). Researchers agree, Wang says, that the constructive process of autobiographical remembering is crucial for the development, expression and maintenance of a "dynamic self-concept."
In the study, Wang asked 119 American and 137 native Chinese college students to describe their earliest childhood memories. In addition to finding that the content and styles of autobiographical narratives are consistently different between Americans and Chinese, Wang also found that Americans on average cite earliest memories back to about age 3 1/2. Chinese, on average, recall their earliest memories from approximately six months later than Americans.
In another study, Wang and two colleagues at Harvard University asked 41 American and Chinese mothers to talk with their 3-year-olds about two shared past events and a story. American mothers and children used a more elaborative, independent conversational style, in which mother and child elaborated on each other's responses and focused on the child's personal opinions, roles and feelings. "The Chinese, however, elaborated rarely; rather, the mothers often posed and repeated factual questions, showing great concern with moral rules and behavioral standards. These findings suggest that children's early social-linguistic experiences shape their autobiographical remembering and may contribute to cultural differences in the age and content of earliest childhood memories," Wang says. This study is published in the journal, Memory (Vol. 8, 2000).
In a third study, published in Child Development (September/October 2000, Vol. 7), Wang and a colleague from Harvard examined the social, emotional and cognitive characteristics of 24 American and 26 Chinese 6-year-olds' stories about fictional events and personal experiences. Once again, compared with Americans, Chinese children were more concerned with moral correctness and authority and conveyed a lesser sense of independence in their narratives. "What children tell in their stories embeds the cultural values they have learned," says Wang, who came to the United States from China six years ago as a graduate student at Harvard.
"These findings indicate that cultural differences in autobiographical memory are apparently set by early preschool years and persist into adulthood. They are formed both in the larger cultural context that defines the meaning of the self and in the immediate family environment," Wang concludes. "The self and autobiographical memory are intertwined not only within an individual but also in the overarching cultural system."
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EDITORS: The researcher’s name, Qi, is pronounced "Chee."
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology