|The longest autobiographical narratives were produced by men talking to women|
Prior research has found that women elaborate more than men when talking about their autobiographical memories, going into more detail, mentioning more emotions and providing more interpretation. One problem with this research, though, is that it hasn’t paid much attention to who is listening or whether the memories are spoken or written.
This is unfortunate because findings like these can fuel overly simplistic gender-based assumptions – in this case, the idea that women have more elaborate and emotional autobiographical memories than men. A new study in the journal Memory reminds us, in the words of Robyn Fivush, that “autobiographical memory is not something we have but something we do in interaction”. Specifically, the new research finds that the way people recall their memories depends on who is listening. In fact, when the listening researcher was a woman, the male participants provided more long-winded descriptions of their memories than the female participants.
Azriel Grysman and Amelia Denney at Hamilton College, New York recruited 178 student participants (average age 19; 101 women) and asked them to describe “an episode in your life that was stressful to you”, with further guidance that it must be a single event lasting no longer than a day, and that they should “try to imagine the event in as much detail as possible” before beginning their description, for which “there is no correct or incorrect length”. Crucially, half the students performed this exercise alone in the psych lab with a female researcher, and half alone with a male researcher. Also, half described their memory out loud (they were told the researcher would simply nod periodically), while the others were instructed to type their memories into a computer.
The researchers coded the length and content of all the memories which were about things like academic stress, arguments, injuries and the death of pets. Contrary to prior research, the longest autobiographical memories were those produced by male participants speaking to a female researcher. The actual content of men’s memories didn’t vary according to gender of the listener, nor whether they were writing or speaking. By contrast, the female participants’ memories contained fewer mentions of internal states (people’s emotions and feelings) when speaking or writing with a male researcher, and they provided fewer opinions when verbally describing their memories as compared with typing them (regardless of the gender of the listener).
We need to be aware that the results could be different if older and non-student participants were tested, and also if the memory prompt were different. There was also a confound in the study, in that the two male researchers who took turns to accompany the (predominantly White) participants were White, whereas the three female researchers were Asian-American and non-White Hispanic, although the researchers couldn’t find any evidence that one or more of the researchers was having an influence on the results.
“The findings reported here emphasise the importance of context in autobiographical memory report,” the researchers concluded. “The implications of these findings are that autobiographical memories include the constantly interacting influences of person, audience, and the experimental or conversational context.”
Grysman, A., & Denney, A. (2016). Gender, experimenter gender and medium of report influence the content of autobiographical memory report Memory, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1133829
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