Studying autobiographical forgetting

Research within different traditions and paradigms supports the view that certain kinds of memories are forgotten in apparently goal-directed ways. For instance, diary studies have suggested that whereas people are more likely to forget events about themselves that are negative rather than positive, they are more likely to forget events about others that are positive rather than negative (Thompson, Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996; Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003). Also, people tend to organize their life story in terms of well-remembered turning points (Thorne, 2000), and forget events that are inconsistent with their current goals and motivations (Habermas & Bluck, 2000). In the clinical domain, some people with post- traumatic stress disorder deliberately and persistently try to forget memories of their trauma (Brewin, 1998), people with functional amnesia forget whole chunks or even their entire autobiographical history following a traumatic experience (Kihlstrom & Schacter, 1995), and people with a repressive coping style (low reported anxiety but high defensiveness) are much more likely to forget negative childhood events than nonrepressors and will actively suppress negative life events whether instructed to or not (Barnier, Levin, & Maher, 2004; Myers & Brewin, 1994).

In the next sections, we review three major experimental paradigms of goal- directed forgetting: retrieval-induced forgetting (Anderson, Bjork, & Bjork, 1994), directed forgetting (Bjork, 1970; Bjork et al., 1998), and think/no think (Anderson & Green, 2001). Directed forgetting is claimed to operate at the level of accessibility, temporarily reducing access to the memory. Retrieval-induced forgetting and think/ no-think are claimed to operate on availability, degrading the memory representation itself (for a review of these paradigms and their claims, see Anderson 2005). Each of these paradigms has been adopted and extended to explore the functional nature of memory, for example by using emotional words as stimuli or by examining specific clinical populations. Studies of clinical populations are important because it has been suggested that people with certain disorders develop memory biases that can maintain their illnesses; that is, their functional remembering and forgetting becomes dysfunctional (Starr & Moulds, 2006). Each of these paradigms has been extended also (to varying degrees) to study the forgetting of autobiographical memories. Studies involving autobiographical material are important because they index the extent to which these paradigms can tell us about everyday remembering and forgetting.

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