Autobiographical forgetting, social forgetting, and situated forgetting: Forgetting in context

Celia B. Harris, john Sutton, and Amanda J. Barnier


We have a striking ability to alter our psychological access to past experiences. Consider the following case. Andrew “Nicky” Barr, ОБЕ. MC, DFC (1915-2006), was one of Australia’s most decorated World War II fighter pilots. He was the top ace of the Western Desert’s 3 Squadron, the pre-eminent fighter squadron in the Middle East, flying P-40 Kittyhawks over Africa. From October 1941, when Nicky Barr’s war began, he flew 22 missions and shot down eight enemy planes in his first 35 operational hours. He was shot down three times, once 25 miles behind enemy lines while trying to rescue a downed pilot. He escaped from prisoner of war camps four times, once jumping out of a train as it travelled from Italy into Austria. His wife Dot, who he married only weeks before the war, waited for him at home. She was told on at least three occasions that he was missing in action or dead.

For 50 years, Nicky Barr never spoke publicly, and rarely privately, of his wartime experiences. He was very much a forgotten and forgetting hero (for further details, see Dornan, 2002). In his first public interview in 2002 on the Australian documentary program “Australian Story”, Nicky explained his 50-year silence by saying:

I think my reluctance [to talk] comes from a very definite desire to forget all about the war as quickly as I could. I was concerned about how the regurgitating of all the things that I didn’t like, things I wasn’t very proud about, the things I had to do in order to survive—how that would really impact on us. ... We found we couldn’t quite cope ... the memories got on top. I didn’t need to go through the business of discussing all my adventures ... some of the things should have stayed forgotten.

Forgetting the past has received a great deal of attention in recent years, both inside and outside psychology (e.g., Connerton, 2008; Erdelyi, 2006; Golding & MacLeod, 1998; McNally, 2005; Schacter, 1996). While the events Barr strived to forget are extraordinary (at least to a generation who has not lived through war), his desire to forget is not. Functioning in our day-to-day lives involves, or perhaps even requires, forgetting. We forget and remember events from our past in a goal-directed, strategic way (Bjork, Bjork, & Anderson, 1998; Conway, 2005). Bjork et al. (1998) defined goal-directed forgetting as “forgetting that serves some implicit or explicit personal need” (p. 103). Despite this definition, forgetting is often equated with failure (see also Cubelli’s chapter, in Forgetting. This is probably because of the influence of the computer metaphor of human memory, which sees human information processing as a sequence of steps where information is encoded, stored, and then retrieved. By this view, recall is expected to be perfect or verbatim, just as a computer can output on command completely and accurately the contents saved in its memory system. But for human memory, this is neither plausible nor functional. Rather, it may be functional to forget certain information that is irrelevant, redundant, out-of-date, damaging, or distressing (see also the chapter by Markowistch & Brand, in Forgetting). In the decade since this chapter was first published, there has been increasing research attention on “motivated forgetting” (Anderson & Hanslmayr, 2014), or “active forgetting” (Anderson & Hulbert, 2021), and particularly on the neural processes involved. Indeed, some research has noted that intentional forgetting can require more neural effort than remembering (Cheng et al., 2012), emphasizing the role of control processes in determining what we remember and what we forget.

In this chapter, we focus on autobiographical memory, which relates to events and experiences in our personal past. We focus in particular on autobiographical forgetting. Autobiographical remembering and forgetting serve a range of functions, especially in maintaining our identity (Conway, 2005; Nelson, 2003) and guiding our behaviour into the future (Pillemer, 2003). In this chapter, we also extend our discussion of forgetting to social memory, which occurs in conversation or community with other people. We focus in particular on social forgetting—both what is not recalled during joint remembering and what is forgotten subsequent to joint memory activities. Social remembering and forgetting serve a range of functions, such as establishing and maintaining relationships, teaching or entertaining others (Alea & Bluck, 2003), and supporting group identity (Sahdra & Ross, 2007).

Although remembering and forgetting may be functional for individuals, groups or societies, across each of these levels different (and possibly competing) functions may be more or less important. For example, in recent years younger Australians have become increasingly involved in commemorating our wartime heroes, especially on ANZAC Day (April 25; which is the anniversary of Australian and New Zealand troops landing on the Turkish Peninsula at Gallipoli in World War I) and especially as the last of our World War I veterans pass away.

Commentators have noted a swell in the social or national desire to remember these events and individuals: attendance at ANZAC Day ceremonies has surged, descendants of servicemen are marching in greater numbers in ANZAC Day parades, and each year more and more young Australian make the journey to Turkey to pay their respects at the site of the Gallipoli landing (Wilson, 2008). This contrasts with the individual desire of many veterans, such as Nicky Barr, to forget their wartime experiences. Some war veterans, for instance, avoided ANZAC Day marches and ceremonies entirely (see “Marcel Caux, 105”, 2004). In other words, an individual’s goal to forget may be threatened by a broader goal to remember (or vice versa).

Forgetting may occur for a number of reasons (see Cubelli’s and Levy, Kuhl & Wagner’s chapters, in Forgetting). In this chapter, we focus on the inability to retrieve information that has been successfully stored in memory.That is, we assume that both encoding and storage were successful, and that forgetting occurs at the retrieval stage. When a particular memory has been encoded and stored successfully but cannot be retrieved, there are at least two possible reasons: reduced memory accessibility and/or reduced memory availability (Tulving & Pearlstone, 1966; see also Kihlstrom & Barnhardt, 1993). Memories that are both available and accessible can be consciously brought to awareness, and can be indexed by explicit memory tests (tests that involve the conscious, intentional recall of target material; Schacter, 1987). Memories that are available but not currently accessible remain outside awareness but can influence ongoing behaviour, and can be indexed by implicit memory tests (tests that do not require conscious recall but where prior learning can aid performance, e.g., priming; Schacter, 1987). Although memories may be inaccessible in a particular context or on a particular recall occasion, they may become accessible in another context, with repeated retrieval attempts or with an appropriate cue (Rubin, 2007). Memories that are neither available nor accessible do not influence either conscious or unconscious processing, such that the likelihood of recalling these memories is low and they may be effectively lost over time.

Adopting a functional view of autobiographical memory (Conway, 2005), in this chapter we consider research that has extended studies of remembering and forgetting to a broad range of “memory cases” (Barnier, Sutton, Harris, & Wilson, 2008).We describe experimental paradigms for studying goal-directed forgetting in the laboratory, and review research extending these paradigms toward more autobiographical remembering and forgetting and toward more social remembering and forgetting. Finally, we link these experimental findings to interdisciplinary work from social science and philosophy on autobiographical forgetting and social forgetting.

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