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Culture Shapes Childhood Memories

Study finds Americans, Chinese differ in what they remember

TUESDAY, July 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- How you remember your childhood may be shaped by your culture, a new study shows.

Cornell University researchers asked American and Chinese college students to recall their earliest childhood experiences and found the Americans recounted lengthier, more emotionally elaborate memories than their Chinese peers. In addition, the recollections of American students started about six months earlier on average than for the Chinese students.

"Cognition is not a pure process. It's embedded in a cultural context. It's intertwined with what we've learned. What we select to remember is affected by our culture," says Qi Wang, lead author of a study which will appear in the August Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Wang's study involved 119 student (54 men and 65 women) from Harvard University and 137 students (90 men and 47 women) from Beijing University in China.

Researchers asked the students how old they were at the time of their earliest childhood memories and to describe the feelings about those memories. The researchers also tried to determine each student's sense of self by asking each to complete 10 sentences that began with the words, "I am "

With few exceptions, memories reported by the Americans were more distinct and more focused on the self than memories reported by the Chinese students.

The Chinese students tended to recall routine events and collective family activities. The American students had more memories focused on personal experiences and feelings, while memories of the Chinese students focused more on others close to them. Americans also had more positive self evaluations. American students reported their earliest memories at about 3.5 years of age, while the memories of the Chinese students tended to start about age 4.

Wang says the difference may be cultural: American society values the individual, while Chinese society emphasizes the collective, she says.

"It could influence how we perceive personal information, what kind of information we store and retrieve," she says.

The study was Wang's third on memory differences between Americans and the Chinese, and she will present the preliminary findings of a fourth study at the International Conference on Memory in Valencia, Spain, on July 16.

Wang says her fourth study looks at whether differences are due to language or the recollection processes.

"Are we actually remembering differently, or are we talking about it differently?" she asks. So far, she says the study shows differences in both areas.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, says, "I find interesting the idea that Americans have 'I' stories and the Chinese have more of these routine, collective memories."

Loftus says scientists have long known that parents reinforce certain kinds of language behavior, and children alter their language patterns to reflect family values.

"Is that what we're seeing here?" she asks. "Do we basically learn to report certain memories of certain kinds? We might be encouraged to remember different kinds of events, and that's what ends up sticking when you grow up. Chances are your earliest memory is going to be something that's been talked about a few times."

Low self-esteem might be one consequence of how the Chinese remember their past, Loftus suggests: "It's just speculation, but if modesty is encouraged, and these Chinese kids are saying to themselves, 'I'm average. I'm not really special,' what happens to their self-concept?"

What To Do: Read about how children form memories and why early childhood memories often elude us.

SOURCES: Interviews with Qi Wang, assistant professor, human development, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Elizabeth Loftus, professor, psychology, University of Washington, Seattle; August 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
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