Teaching & Learning Guide for: Once Upon a Time: Explaining Cultural Differences in Episodic Specificity



This guide accompanies the following article: Qi Wang,‘Once Upon a Time: Explaining Cultural Differences in Episodic Specificity’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3/4 (2009): 413–432, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00182.x)

Author’s Introduction

Whether and how much detail we remember of our personal past shapes our sense of self and well-being. Episodic memory is traditionally viewed as a neurocognitive product transcending culture. A cultural perspective highlights the importance of embedding context and social rules into the models of memory and its development. It is critical for uncovering specific mechanisms underlying how and what individuals remember.

Author Recommends

Nelson, K. & Fivush, R. (2004). The emergence of autobiographical memory: A social cultural developmental theory. Psychological Review, 111, 2, 486–511.

A magisterial work on female spirituality and monasticism in the early Middle Ages, the foundation for this study is the analysis of 2,200 female and male saint’s vitae (lives). Schulenburg studies the public and private activities of holy women, their opportunities, their lives, and their relationships with siblings and spiritual friends. She explores accounts of heroic virginity and self-mutilation as well as the life expectancy of early medieval saints. Drawing comparisons between the lives of male and female saints, Schulenburg’s study revealed the distinctive characteristics of female sanctity in the early Middle Ages.

Nelson, K. & Fivush, R. (2004). The emergence of autobiographical memory: A social cultural developmental theory. Psychological Review, 111 (2), 486–511.

The authors present a multicomponent dynamic developmental theory of human autobiographical memory that emerges gradually across the preschool years. The components that contribute to the process of emergence include basic memory abilities, language and narrative, adult memory talk, temporal understanding, and understanding of self and others. The authors review the empirical developmental evidence within each of these components to show how each contributes to the timing, quantity, and quality of personal memories from the early years of life. The authors then consider the relevance of the theory to explanations of childhood amnesia and how the theory accounts for and predicts the complex findings on adults’ earliest memories, including individual, gender, and cultural differences.

Leichtman, M. D., Wang, Q., & Pillemer, D. B. (2003). Cultural variations in interdependence and autobiographical memory: Lessons From Korea, China, India, and the United States. In R. Fivush & C. Haden (Eds.), Autobiographical memory and the construction of a narrative self: Developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 73–98). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Research over the past two decades has documented powerful effects of culture on human performance across a sweeping array of social and cognitive tasks. For example, how people process stimuli, reason about the causes of events, and describe themselves varies as a function of the culture in which they live. This chapter focuses on one fascinating aspect of this growing portrait of cross-cultural influences, namely emergent differences in autobiographical memory. The goal is to review recent empirical work that indicates significant differences in the content and style of autobiographical memories of people raised in different cultures. The central question the authors pose is how the social environment in which a child grows up influences the establishment and maintenance of long-term event memories. What cross-cultural variations in autobiographical memory exist during childhood and adulthood, and what mechanisms are likely to be responsible for them? One particularly useful distinction in this regard is the difference between independently and interdependently oriented social environments. This distinction, which refers in part to environments that encourage different degrees of focus on the self versus other people, appears to predict several important aspects of what and how children remember. Thus, throughout the discussion, the authors return to this paradigm for conceptualizing cross-cultural findings.

Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1–25.

Episodic memory is a neurocognitive (brain/mind) system, uniquely different from other memory systems, that enables human beings to remember past experiences. The notion of episodic memory was first proposed some 30 years ago. At that time it was defined in terms of materials and tasks. It was subsequently refined and elaborated in terms of ideas such as self, subjective time, and autonoetic consciousness. This chapter provides a brief history of the concept of episodic memory, describes how it has changed (indeed greatly changed) since its inception, considers criticisms of it, and then discusses supporting evidence provided by (1) neuropsychological studies of patterns of memory impairment caused by brain damage, and (2) functional neuroimaging studies of patterns of brain activity of normal subjects engaged in various memory tasks. The author also suggests that episodic memory is a true, even if as yet generally unappreciated, marvel of nature.

Wang, Q. (2006). Earliest recollections of self and others in European American and Taiwanese young adults. Psychological Science, 17, 8, 708–714.

This study examined the age and content of earliest childhood memories of self and others. European American and Taiwanese participants retrieved their earliest memories in response to the cue words self, mother, family, friend, and surroundings. Memory for mother was from an earlier age than memory for self, and memories for mother, family, and friend were more socially oriented in content than memories for self or surroundings. In addition, in response to all cue words, Euro-Americans recalled memories from an earlier age than did Taiwanese. Euro-Americans also had a greater tendency to report memories of specific events and focused more on their own roles and autonomy than did Taiwanese, who more often described routine events and emphasized the roles of others. These findings have important implications for infantile amnesia and the memory-self interplay.

Wang, Q. (2006). Relations of maternal style and child self-concept to autobiographical memories in Chinese, Chinese immigrant, and European American 3-year-olds. Child Development, 77, 6, 1794–1809.

The relations of maternal reminiscing style and child self-concept to children’s shared and independent autobiographical memories were examined in a sample of 189 three-year-olds and their mothers from Chinese families in China, first-generation Chinese immigrant families in the United States, and European American families. Mothers shared memories with their children and completed questionnaires; children recounted autobiographical events and described themselves with a researcher. Independent of culture, gender, child age, and language skills, maternal elaborations and evaluations were associated with children’s shared memory reports, and maternal evaluations and child agentic self-focus were associated with children’s independent memory reports. Maternal style and child self-concept further mediated cultural influences on children’s memory. The findings provide insight into the social-cultural construction of autobiographical memory.

Wang, Q. (2008). Emotion knowledge and autobiographical memory across the preschool years: A cross-cultural longitudinal investigation. Cognition, 108, 117–135.

Knowledge of emotion situations facilitates the interpretation, processing, and organization of significant personal event information and thus may be an important contributor to the development of autobiographical memory. This longitudinal study tested the hypothesis in a cross-cultural context. The participants were native Chinese children, Chinese children from first-generation Chinese immigrant families in the United States, and European American children. Children’s developing emotion knowledge and autobiographical memory were assessed three times at home, when children were 3, 3.5, and 4.5 years of age. Children’s emotion knowledge uniquely predicted their autobiographical memory ability across groups and time points. Emotion knowledge further mediated culture effects on autobiographical memory. The findings provide important insight into early autobiographical memory development, and extend current theoretical understandings of the emotion-memory interplay. They further have implications for the phenomenon of infantile amnesia and cross-cultural differences in childhood recollections.

Wang, Q. (2009). Are Asians forgetful? Perception, retention, and recall in episodic remembering. Cognition, 111, 123–131.

Cross-cultural studies have shown that Asians exhibit less accessibility to episodic memories than Euro-Americans. This difference is often attributed to differential cognitive and social influences on memory retention, although there have been no empirical data concerning the underlying mechanism. Three studies were conducted to examine encoding and retention processes that may underlie the cultural difference in episodic recall. While Asians recalled fewer personal event episodes than Euro-Americans across different retention intervals, the two groups showed similar forgetting functions over time (Study 1). Asians also recalled fewer episodes of fictional events than Euro-Americans when the retention interval was kept to a minimum (Study 2). Finally, Asians perceived fewer discrete episodes than Euro-Americans when reading events in a narrative text (Study 3). Collectively, these findings suggest that the cultural difference in episodic recall may not be a mere consequence of memory retention but culture-specific perceptual processing and encoding. They have great theoretical, developmental, and clinical relevance.

Wang, Q. & Fivush, R. (2005). Mother-child conversations of emotionally salient events: Exploring the functions of emotional reminiscing in European American and Chinese Families. Social Development, 14, 3, 473–495.

This study explores the functional variations in mother-child conversations of emotionally salient events in European American and Chinese families. Thirty Chinese and 31 European American 3-year-old children and their mothers participated. Mothers were asked to discuss with their children at home two specific one-point-in-time events in which they both participated. One event was extremely positive to the child, one extremely stressful. American mothers initiated more interactive and elaborative conversations that focused on the child’s roles and predilections in the story, and they employed a “cognitive approach” to emotional regulation by providing explanations for the cause of children’s feeling states. Chinese mothers took a directive role in posing and repeating memory questions and focusing on social interaction, and they used a “behavioral approach” to emotional regulation by emphasizing discipline and proper conduct to their children. Findings are discussed in light of cultural influences on the functions of emotional reminiscing for self and relationship construction and emotional regulation.

Wang, Q. & Ross, M. (2007). Culture and memory. In H. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology (pp. 645–667). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

The authors examine the impact of culture on schemas, and how prior information in the form of shared knowledge shapes the constructive process of memory. They begin their analysis of this literature by explaining what they mean by the term ‘culture’. They view culture as both a system and a process (rituals, daily routines, and practices) of symbolic mediation. By operating on social institutions (e.g., the family) as well as on the actions, thoughts, emotions, and moral values of individuals, culture regulates both intrapersonal and interpersonal psychological functions. Through socialization, individuals acquire knowledge and competencies that serve culturally prescribed goals. Similar to other abilities, memory is useful to the extent that it helps people achieve their objectives. The authors assess whether culture affects why people remember, how people remember, when people remember, what people remember, and whether they judge remembering to be necessary at all. They focus on a particular type of memory, autobiographical recall. They adopt a functional approach to examine cultural emphases on different goals and functions of autobiographical remembering. They show that such cultural differences have important consequences for the content, style, emergence, and general accessibility of autobiographical memories.

Online Materials


This website discusses different types of memories and covers popular topics about memory.


This website includes an introduction of types of memories, including autobiographical memory, and the brain mechanisms.


This website provides information about books and journal articles on the topic of autobiographical memory.


This BBC website provides interactive links about childhood amnesia. Students can submit their earliest memories.


This web sites covers popular topics and phenomena of memory.

Sample Syllabus

Week I: Introduction and overview

Brewer, W. F. (1986). What is autobiographical memory? In D. C. Rubin (Ed.), Autobiographical memory (pp. 25–49). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tulving, E. (1989). Remembering and knowing. American Scientist, 77, 361–367.

Week II: Early memory development

Bauer, P. J. (2002). Early Memory Development. In U. Goswami (Ed.), Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development (pp. 127–146). Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers.

Simcock, G. & Hayne, H. (2003). Age-related changes in verbal and nonverbal memory during early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 39, 5, 805–814.

Week III: Memory, mind, and brain

Wishaw, I. Q. & Wallace, D. G. (2003). On the origins of autobiographical memory. Behavioral Brain Research, 138, 113–119.

Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: From mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1–25.

Week IV: Cultural perspectives

Wang, Q. (2009). Once upon a time: Explaining cultural differences in episodic specificity. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3/4, 413–432.

Wang, Q. (2009). Are Asians forgetful? Perception, retention, and recall in episodic remembering. Cognition, 111, 123–131.

Week V: Sociolinguistic approaches to early memory development

Leichtman, M. D., Pillemer, D. B., Wang, Q., Koreishi, A. & Han, J. J. (2000). When Baby Maisy came to school: Mothers’ interview styles and preschoolers’ event memories. Cognitive Development, 15(1), 99–114.

McGuigan, F. & Salmon, K. (2004). The time to talk: The influence of the timing of adult-child talk on children’s event memory. Child Development, 75(3), 669–686.

Week VI: Memory in bilinguals

Schrauf, R. W & Rubin, D. (2000). Internal languages of retrieval: The bilingual encoding of memories for the personal past. Memory & Cognition, 28(4), 616–623.

Marian, V. & Neisser, U. (2000). Language-dependent recall of autobiographical memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 3, 361–368.


Focus Questions

(1) What challenges do researchers interested in female spirituality and the arts face and why?

  • 1 What challenges do researchers face when studying memory – and cognition in general – across cultures and why?
  • 2 What methods are available to researchers to study autobiographical memory without depending on subjects’ verbal reports?
  • 3 In addition to the variables that the author discussed in the article, what other cultural factors may have an important impact on episodic remembering?
  • 4 To what extent do memory narratives reflect underlying memory representations?
  • 5 What are the practical implications of the cultural differences in episodic memory?

Seminar/Project Idea

Ask students to each write down their earliest childhood memory: ‘Please take a moment to think of your earliest childhood memory. Describe it as precisely as you can. It must be your own memory from the earliest childhood, not something you only saw in a picture or only heard from someone else’.

After the memory recall, ask students to examine the specificity of their own memory using the two methods described in the article. Discuss differences between genders and across cultures.