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					                                                 MEMORY, 2000, 8 (6), 365–376

                  Cross-cultural and gender differences in
                            childhood amnesia

                         Shelley MacDonald, Kimberly Uesiliana, and Harlene Hayne
                                      University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

       In two experiments, we examined cross-cultural and gender differences in adults’ earliest memories. To do
       this, we asked male and female adults from three cultural backgrounds (New Zealand European, New
       Zealand Maori, and Asian) to describe and date their earliest personal memory. Consistent with past
       research, Asian adults reported significantly later memories than European adults, however this effect was
       due exclusively to the extremely late memories reported by Asian females. Maori adults, whose tradi-
       tional culture includes a strong emphasis on the past, reported significantly earlier memories than adults
       from the other two cultural groups. Across all three cultures, the memories reported by women contained
       more information than the memories reported by men. These findings support the view that the age and
       content of our earliest memories are influenced by a wide range of factors including our culture and our
       gender. These factors must be incorporated into any comprehensive theory of autobiographical memory.

When adults are asked to report their earliest                        the age of 3; there was a sharp increase in the
personal experiences, most can recall little about                    number of memories for events that occurred
events that occurred prior to the age of 3 or 4. The                  beginning at the age of 4.
difficulty we experience in recalling events from                        In an attempt to increase the reliability of the
our infancy and early childhood is commonly                           estimates of the dates of their earliest memories,
referred to as childhood amnesia. One approach                        Sheingold and Tenney (1982) interviewed parti-
to the study of this phenomenon has been to ask                       cipants about an event that could be dated with
adults to recall their earliest personal memories                     extreme accuracy. In their study, 4- to 20-year-
and to indicate the date of the target event. In one                  olds were asked to report as much information as
of the first empirical studies of this kind, Dudycha                  possible about the birth of a sibling. If participants
and Dudycha (1933a) asked adults to identify                          were 3 or older at the time of the birth, they were
their earliest memories and to estimate, as closely                   able to give a detailed account of the event, but
as possible, when the event had occurred. Most of                     participants who were younger than 3 at the time
the adults in this study indicated that their earliest                provided very little information. These same basic
memory was for an event that had occurred during                      findings have been replicated time and time again
their third or fourth year of life. In another classic                (Crovitz & Harvey, 1979; Crovitz & Quina-
study by Waldfogel (1948), participants were                          Holland, 1976; Dudycha & Dudycha, 1933b, 1941;
asked to record and to date all the experiences                       Kihlstrom & Harackiewicz, 1982; Weiland &
they could recall that had occurred prior to their                    Steisel, 1958; Winograd & Killinger, 1983).
eighth birthday. Relatively few of the experiences                       The findings just described provide strong evi-
recalled occurred before the participants reached                     dence that, for many individuals, the period of

   Requests for reprints should be sent to Harlene Hayne, Psychology Department, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
   This research was supported by a grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand. The authors would like to thank Seow
Lim for her help in data collection and Julien Gross, Stuart McNaughton, and Carolyn Greco-Vigorito for their insightful comments
on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Data collection with Maori participants was undertaken in consultation with members of the Ngai
Tahu Iwi.

                                                Ó 2000 Psychology Press Ltd

childhood amnesia ends sometime between 3 and             Current empirical research on memory
4 years of age. However, there are a number of         development conducted within this theoretical
factors that may lead to individual differences in     framework has shown that parents exhibit dif-
the age of adults’ earliest memories. Usher and        ferent narrative styles when discussing past events
Neisser (1993), for example, asked adults to recall    with their children. Two distinct styles have been
their own hospitalisation, the birth of a sibling, a   identified; one referred to as elaborative, high-
move, or a death in the family. They found that        elaborative, topic-extending, or reminiscent, and
although participants could not report informa-        the other referred to as low-elaborative, repeti-
tion about a family funeral or a move that had         tive, topic-switching, or practical (Fivush, 1991;
occurred prior to the age of 4, they could report      Fivush & Fromhoff, 1988; Hudson, 1990, 1993;
small amounts of information about a hospitali-        McCabe & Peterson, 1991; Reese & Fivush, 1993;
sation or the birth of a sibling if these events       Reese, Haden, & Fivush, 1993). The narratives of
occurred when the participant was as young as 2        parents who exhibit a high-elaborative style are
(see also Eacott & Crawley, 1998). These results       characterised by long and richly detailed descrip-
indicate that the absolute boundary for childhood      tions of past events. In contrast, the narratives of
amnesia may vary as a function of an individual’s      parents who exhibit a low-elaborative style are
early experiences.                                     often very short; these low-elaborative parents
   In addition to factors related to the nature of     provide few details and often repeat questions
the original experience, individual differences in     over and over in an attempt to elicit the correct
the characteristics of the rememberer per se may       response from their child. Although all parents
also influence the age of earliest memory. Some        exhibit aspects of both styles, they tend to use one
studies, for example, have shown that women            style over the other (Fivush & Reese, 1992). A
report earlier memories than men (Dudycha &            growing body of research has also shown that
Dudycha, 1941; Schachtel, 1947; Waldfogel, 1948).      individual differences in these parental narrative
Although this gender difference is not always          styles influence the child’s emerging ability to talk
obtained (Kilhlstrom & Harackiewicz, 1982;             about the past (Engel, 1995; Fivush, 1991; Fivush
Rubin, Schulkind, & Rahhal, 1999; Wang,                & Fromhoff, 1988; Hudson, 1990; McCabe &
Leichtman, & White, 1998), when gender differ-         Peterson, 1991; Peterson & McCabe 1994). Chil-
ences occur, it is always the case that women’s        dren of high-elaborative parents, for example,
memories are earlier than men’s.                       provide longer, more well developed accounts of
   Similarly, there may also be differences in the     personally experienced events than do children of
age of earliest memory as a function of an indi-       low-elaborative parents.
vidual’s cultural background. In one study, for           Given that children’s early autobiographical
example, Mullen (1994) interviewed college             memories have been shown to vary as a function
students from two cultures, Asian and Caucasian        of the way in which parents talk about the past
American, about their childhood memories. In           within a culture (Fivush & Fromhoff, 1988; Hud-
four experiments, Mullen found a significant dif-      son, 1990; McCabe & Peterson, 1991; Peterson &
ference in the age of earliest memory between the      McCabe, 1994; Reese et al., 1993), it has been
two cultures; Asian adults reported significantly      hypothesised that cross-cultural differences in the
later memories than Caucasian adults.                  content, purpose, and frequency of adults’ past
   What are the potential mechanisms under-            event narratives might lead to systematic differ-
lying these individual differences in childhood        ences in early autobiographical memories between
amnesia? It has been hypothesised that, unlike         cultures as well (Han, Leichtman, & Wang, 1998;
other forms of episodic memory, auto-                  Leichtman, 1999; Miller & Moore, 1989; Miller,
biographical memory is a social construction,          Potts, Fung, Hoogstra, & Mintz, 1990; Wang,
originating through experience, but elaborated,        Leichtman, & White, 1998).
altered, and maintained through interactions              At present, there is some evidence to support
with a number of important social partners             the hypothesis that cross-cultural differences in
(Fivush, 1991; Mullen, 1994; Nelson, 1993c).           conversations about the past during childhood
Within this context, Nelson (1993b, c) has pro-        might lead to long-lasting cross-cultural differ-
posed that conversations about the past between        ences in adults’ memories of their childhood.
parents and children play a central role in the        Recall that when Mullen (1994) asked adults to
emergence and long-term maintenance of early           report their earliest memories, Asian adults
autobiographical memories.                             reported memories that were significantly later
                                                                    ADULTS’ EARLIEST MEMORIES            367

than those reported by Caucasian adults.               men and women from each of these groups to
Recently, Mullen and Yi (1995) tape-recorded           describe and date their earliest personal mem-
naturally occurring conversations about the past       ories. Based on the study conducted by Mullen
between Korean and Caucasian mothers and their         (1994), we predicted that Asian adults would
3-year-old children. These authors found that          report later memories than Pakeha adults.
Caucasian mother–child dyads talked about the          Furthermore, given their strong cultural emphasis
past three times more often than did Korean            on the importance of the past, we also predicted
mother–child dyads. Furthermore, Han et al.            that Maori adults would report earlier memories
(1998) have also shown that the past event nar-        than adults from the other two cultural groups.
ratives of 4- and 6-year-old Korean children are
extremely sparse relative to those of Caucasian
American children of the same age. Taken                               EXPERIMENT 1
together, these findings provide tentative support
for the conclusion that the boundary for childhood     Method
amnesia may be influenced, at least in part, by an
individual’s early narrative environment.                 Participants. For the present experiment, 96
    The overarching goal of the present study was      participants from three cultural backgrounds were
to further examine cross-cultural differences in       recruited by word-of-mouth from the student
childhood amnesia. In particular, we were inter-       population of the University of Otago. Of these,
ested in whether or not a strong cultural emphasis     32 participants were Pakeha (M age = 20.50 years,
on the importance of past experience would             SE = .49 years), 32 were Maori (M age = 24.22
influence the age or content of adults’ earliest       years, SE = 1.10 years), and 32 were Asian (29
childhood memories. New Zealand provides a             Chinese, 3 Japanese, M age = 21.63 years, SE = .74
unique opportunity to address this question.           years). There were 16 females and 16 males within
Individuals from a number of cultural back-            each ethnic group.
grounds live side-by-side in the same communities
while maintaining a strong sense of their own             Procedure. A questionnaire, similar to the
cultural identity. The native population, the          one used by Mullen (1994), was developed for
Maori, has lived in New Zealand for over 1000          the present experiment. In the first part of the
years. Historically, richly descriptive accounts of    questionnaire, participants were asked to pro-
the past have played an important role in tradi-       vide the following demographic information: (1)
tional Maori culture (Biggs, 1970; Irwin, 1984).       gender, (2) ethnicity, (3) first language, (4) birth-
Although English is the dominant language in           date, (5) birthplace, (6) parental ethnicity, (7)
New Zealand, political changes over the past 35        parental birthplace, (8) primary caregiver during
years have led to a resurgence of the native lan-      childhood, (9) number of people in the house-
guage and a renewed appreciation for the tradi-        hold prior to age 8, (9) number of siblings, and
tional culture of the Maori people, including their    (10) birth order. In the second part of the ques-
strong oral tradition (Metge, 1976).                   tionnaire, participants were asked to provide a
    Two major waves of immigration have brought        complete description of their earliest personal
individuals from around the world to New               memory. Participants were specifically instructed
Zealand. Approximately 150 years ago, there was a      to report the first event they could recall and to
large influx of European settlers; these individuals   include any information that they could remem-
came from a variety of Northern European coun-         ber about where the event took place, who was
tries including England, Scotland, and Ireland.        present, what happened, and how they felt. As in
New Zealanders of European descent are referred        the Mullen (1994) study, no attempt was made
to as Pakeha. Following the end of World War II,       to verify the accuracy of the participants’ mem-
New Zealand attracted a large Asian immigrant          ories. In the third part of the questionnaire, par-
population. More recently, individuals from a          ticipants were asked to indicate their age at the
number of Asian countries, including Malaysia,         time of the event (in years and months) and the
China, Japan, Taiwan, and Brunei have tempora-         source of the original memory (i.e., personal
rily settled in New Zealand to attend university.      experience, family story, photographs). Partici-
    In the present experiments, we compared the        pants were allowed as much time as they needed
age and content of the earliest memories of Maori,     to complete the questionnaire; most completed it
Pakeha, and Asian adults. To do this, we asked         within 15 minutes.

Results                                                            Age of earliest memory. In order to examine
                                                                the frequency distribution of the age of earliest
Table 1 shows a summary of the demographic                      memory, each participant’s memory was
information describing the participants in this                 assigned to a chronological year. Participants
experiment. As shown in Table 1, all of the                     reporting memories between birth and 11
Pakeha and Maori participants were born in New                  months of age, for example, were assigned to the
Zealand, and 29 of the Asian participants were                  0–1 age category. Participants reporting mem-
born in Asian countries (Malaysia, China, Japan,                ories between 12 and 23 months of age were
Taiwan, or Brunei). Although three of the Asian                 assigned to the 1–2 category, and so on. Figure 1
participants were born in New Zealand, the                      shows the percentage of memories reported by
parents of two of these participants were born in               all participants collapsed across gender and
Asian countries. All of the Pakeha participants                 ethnicity as a function of age category in years.
listed their parents’ ethnicity as Pakeha, and all of           The largest percentage of memories were for
the Asian participants listed their parents’ ethni-             events that occurred between the ages of 3 and
city as Asian. Of the participants who listed their             4. In fact, over half (62.5%) of the memories
own ethnicity as Maori, half indicated that either              reported were for events that occurred between
their mother or father was not Maori. All of the                the ages of 2 and 5.
Pakeha and most of the Maori participants listed                   Figure 2 shows the mean age of earliest
English as their first language. Although all of the            memory expressed in months as a function of
Asian participants could speak and read English                 gender and culture. A 2 (Gender) 6 3 (Culture)
at the time of the present experiment, only four of             analysis of variance (ANOVA) yielded a sig-
them listed English as their first language. Finally,           nificant main effect of Culture, F(2, 90) = 13.12, p
92% of the total sample indicated that their                    < .0001. Post-hoc t-tests (p < .05) revealed that all
mother had been the primary caregiver during                    three cultures differed from one another. Overall,
childhood.                                                      Asian participants reported the latest memories
                                                                (M = 57.84 months, SE = 5.64) and Maori parti-
                                                                cipants reported the earliest memories (M = 32.62
                                                                months, SE = 1.66). Pakeha participants reported
                        TABLE 1                                 memories intermediate between these two
A demographic description of the participants in Experiment 1   extremes (M = 42.88 months, SE = 2.96). There
                                                                was also a main effect of Gender, F(1, 90) = 6.09, p
                                Cultural background
Variable                    Asian     Pakeha      Maori
                                                                < .02 and a significant Gender by Culture inter-
                                                                action, F(2, 90) = 6.72, p < .002. To evaluate this
Birthplace                                                      interaction, post-hoc t-tests comparing males and
  New Zealand                  3          32          32        females were calculated within each culture. This
  Asia                        29           0           0
                                                                analysis revealed that the only significant gender
Mother’s ethnicity
  Asian                       32           0           0        difference in the age of earliest memory occurred
  Pakeha                       0          32           9        for the Asian participants. As shown in Figure 2,
  Maori                        0           0          23        Asian females reported much later memories (M
Father’s ethnicity                                              = 73.3 months, SE = 8.45) than Asian males (M =
  Asian                       32           0           0
                                                                42.4 months, SE = 5.30).
  Pakeha                       0          32           4
  Maoria                       0           0          26           Recall that within the Maori group, approxi-
First language                                                  mately half of the 32 participants indicated that
  English                      4          32          30        their mother or father was not Maori. There was
  Other                       28           0           2        no difference in the age of earliest memory for
Primary caregiver(s )b
                                                                adults with one (M = 33.06 months, SE = 2.06)
  Mother                      27          31          30
  Father                      10           8           9        versus two (M = 32.19 months, SE = 2.67) Maori
  Grandparent                  5           0           0        parents. For the subgroup with only one Maori
  Other                        2           0           2        parent, however, participants whose mother was
                                                                Maori (M = 28.17 months, SE = 4.09) reported
     The remaining two fathers of Maori participants were       earlier memories than participants whose father
Niuean and Fijian.
     The total number of primary caregivers for each ethnic
                                                                was Maori (M = 36.00 months, SE = 1.79). Despite
group may exceed 32; some participants listed more than one     the small size of the subgroups (mother only = 6;
individual as their primary caregiver.                          father only = 9), the difference between them
                                                                                   ADULTS’ EARLIEST MEMORIES                   369

Figure 1. The frequency of adults’ earliest memories as a function of childhood age in years. The data have been collapsed across
both culture and gender.

approached conventional levels of significance,                    source(s) of his or her earliest memory. Across all
t(13) = 2.02, p < .06.                                             three cultures, most of the participants (86%)
                                                                   indicated that their earliest memory was based on
   Source of earliest memory. As described                         their personal recollection of their own experi-
earlier, we asked each participant to list the                     ence1 . Within this group, however, some partici-
                                                                   pants also indicated that their memory had been
                                                                   augmented by photographs or family stories.
                                                                   Interestingly, of the participants who indicated
                                                                   that a family story was an important source of
                                                                   their memory (either alone or in conjunction with
                                                                   personal experience), 64% were Maori.
                                                                      The finding that Maori participants were more
                                                                   likely to use family story as a source of informa-
                                                                   tion about their earliest memory raises the possi-
                                                                   bility that the Maori advantage in the age of
                                                                   earliest memory reported earlier was due to their
                                                                   greater reliance on second-hand information
                                                                   relative to personal recollection of the same event.

                                                                         Even if we exclude the data from participants who
                                                                   reported no first-hand knowledge of their earliest memory, the
                                                                   pattern of results remains unchanged. For the age of earliest
                                                                   memory, there is a main effect of Culture, F (2, 79) = 16.84, p
                                                                   < .0001, and a Culture 6 Gender interaction, F (2, 79) = 5.18, p
Figure 2. The mean age (+1 SE) of adults’ earliest memory as       < .01; for the content of these early memories, there is a main
a function of gender and culture.                                  effect of Gender, F (1, 79) = 7.62, p < .01.

However, within the Maori group, there was no
difference in the age of earliest memory for the
Maori participants who used family stories as a
source of information (M = 33.62 months, SE =
1.72) and those who did not (M = 32.29, months
SE = 1.72).
   In a similar vein, it is also possible that indivi-
dual differences in willingness to rely on family
story may have contributed to the gender differ-
ence in the age of earliest memory within the
Asian sample. That is, perhaps the very late age of
earliest memory among the Asian women was due
to their unwillingness to use family story (or
photos) as a source of information. Again, how-
ever, the data do not support this conclusion.
Within the Asian sample, the same number of
                                                         Figure 3. The mean amount of information (+1 SE) included
males and females relied on photos to augment            in the adults’ written descriptions of their earliest memories as
their memories (n = 3 each), and more females (n         a function of gender and culture.
= 2) than males (n = 0) relied on family story.
                                                         between the amount of information reported and
   Amount of information reported. To assess
                                                         the age of the memory in months either within a
potential differences in the amount of information
                                                         culture (Asian: r = .06, p < .73; Pakeha: r = .003, p
provided, the written descriptions of the mem-           < .98; Maori: r = 7.11, p < .54) or across all three
ories were coded in a manner similar to that used
                                                         cultural groups (r = .02, p < .85).
in previous prospective studies of children’s
autobiographical memory (Butler, Gross, &
                                                             Emotional content of information. Overall,
Hayne, 1995; Fivush, Gray, & Fromhoff, 1987;
                                                         there was no apparent pattern in the emotional
MacDonald & Hayne, 1996). To do this, one coder          content of memories that adults recalled from
assigned each participant a point for each piece of
                                                         their childhood. Across both culture and gender,
information that he or she provided about his or
                                                         the target events ranged from potentially embar-
her earliest memory. Participants were assigned
                                                         rassing or traumatic experiences to experiences
points for providing information about who was
                                                         that, to us, appeared amazingly benign. Although
present, what happened, where the event took             some memories included vivid imagery and
place, and how they felt at the time. Participants
                                                         description, the importance of the event per se was
were also assigned points for any additional
                                                         not always clear. In fact, many of the events
descriptive information about people, objects, and
                                                         reported by the participants in our study seemed
weather. Participants could earn more than a
                                                         relatively unimportant. Prospective studies of
single point within each of these coding
                                                         children’s memory development have shown that
categories. A second observer independently              what children recall is different from what adults
coded 25% of the memory descriptions. Inter-
                                                         might consider to be the highlights of the same
rater reliability for the total amount of informa-
                                                         event (Hudson, 1986; Nelson, 1993a). Given this,
tion reported was 93%.
                                                         it is probably impossible to predict which child-
   Figure 3 shows the amount of information
                                                         hood events will and will not become part of a
contained in the participants’ written descriptions      person’s permanent autobiography.
of their memories as a function of both gender and
culture. A 2 (Gender) 6 3 (Culture) ANOVA
                                                            Family factors. There were a number of cross-
yielded a significant main effect of Gender, F(2,
                                                         cultural differences in the household structure of
90) = 8.73, p < .01. Overall, the narrative descrip-
tions provided by females (M = 14.94, SE = 1.10)
contained more total information than the narra-              In light of the extremely late memories reported by the
tive descriptions provided by males (M = 10.96, SE       Asian females, we conducted an additional 2 (Gender) 6 2
                                                         (Culture) analysis of variance on the total amount of infor-
= .78). 2 There was no significant main effect of        mation reported that excluded the Asian sample. Even with
Culture and no significant Gender by Culture             these data removed, there was still a significant main effect of
interaction. Surprisingly, there was no correlation      Gender, F (1, 62) = 9.91, p < .005.
                                                                   ADULTS’ EARLIEST MEMORIES           371

the participants in the present experiment. Over-     after the age of 5 (see Figure 1), 12 of those
all, Pakeha participants had fewer siblings, F(2,     memories were reported by Asian participants
93) = 3.03, p < .05, were more likely to be first     and 10 of those memories were reported by Asian
born, F(2, 93) = 3.44, p < .05, and had fewer total   females. In fact, only three Asian females repor-
household members, F(2, 93) = 8.07, p < .001 than     ted memories for events that occurred prior to the
either the Asian or Maori participants. These         age of 5.
latter two groups did not differ from one another        At least three factors may have contributed to
on any of these measures.                             the discrepancy between our findings and those
   Past research has shown that there is a            previously reported by Mullen (1994). First, it is
relation between a number of family factors and       possible that our findings may have been idio-
the age of earliest memory. In Mullen’s (1994)        syncratic to the sample of participants that we
study, for example, first-born participants           interviewed and may not reflect a real, replicable
reported significantly earlier memories than par-     difference between our results and Mullen’s.
ticipants with older siblings. Furthermore, there     Second, individual differences in participants’
was also a trend in her study for participants        fluency with English may have contributed to the
with fewer total siblings to report earlier mem-      pattern of results. Recall that only four of the
ories than participants with more siblings (see       Asian participants in our sample listed English as
also Wang et al., 1998). To assess the potential      their first language. This finding raises the possi-
effect of family factors on the age and content of    bility that a mismatch between the predominant
the memories reported in the present experi-          language at the time of the original event
ment, we conducted separate regression analyses       (encoding) and the language at the time of the
using birth order, number of siblings, and total      questionnaire (retrieval) may have led to later
number of household members as predictors of          memories (Otoya, 1988). Although it is not clear
the age of earliest memory and as predictors of       how this account would result in systematic dif-
the total amount of information contained in the      ferences between males and females, we cannot
written description. The results of these analyses    rule out the possibility that language may have
indicated that there was no significant relation      been important. Finally, the discrepancy between
between any family factor and the age of earliest     our findings and those reported by Mullen may
memory either within a culture or when the data       reflect real differences between two different
were collapsed across the entire sample. Further-     Asian cultures. In the experiment conducted by
more, there was also no significant relation          Mullen in which the actual ethnicity of the parti-
between any family factor and the total amount        cipants was given, all participants were Korean. In
of information reported. It is possible that our      the present sample, however, the majority of the
sample size was not large enough to detect the        Asian participants were Chinese. This finding
effect of individual family factors (i.e., birth      raises the possibility that results obtained in one
order, number of siblings, and total household        Asian culture may not necessarily generalise to
members) on the age or content of adults’             another (Han et al., 1998).
earliest memories (cf. Mullen, 1994, Study 4). It        With these issues in mind, the purpose of
is also possible, however, that additional family     Experiment 2 was twofold. First, we attempted to
factors that we did not measure, such as birth        replicate the finding that Chinese females
spacing, might also moderate the effects of a sin-    reported later childhood memories than Chinese
gle factor considered in isolation.                   males. Second, we attempted to eliminate the
                                                      effects of individual differences in fluency with
                                                      English by giving all participants the opportunity
Discussion                                            to read the questionnaire and to provide their
                                                      answers in Mandarin.
Consistent with past research (Mullen, 1994), the
results of Experiment 1 demonstrated that Asian
participants reported significantly later memories                    EXPERIMENT 2
than European (Pakeha) participants. The later
age for first memories reported by the Asians in      Method
our sample, however, was due primarily to the
extremely late age of earliest memory reported by       Participants. For the present experiment, 32
the Asian females. Of the 13 memories reported        Chinese participants (16 males, 16 females, M age

= 22.38 years, SE = .40) were recruited by word-of-    hand, participants had the option of responding in
mouth from the student population of the Uni-          Mandarin. Of the 32 participants, 20 chose the
versity of Otago.                                      Mandarin option. To assess the effect of this
                                                       manipulation, we compared the age and content
   Procedure. A questionnaire, identical to the        of the Asian participants’ earliest memories as a
one used in Experiment 1 was administered to           function of the language in which they answered
each participant. There were two versions of the       the questionnaire. Separate one-way ANOVAs
questionnaire; one version was in English, and the     yielded no effect of language on either the age of
other was in Mandarin. Participants were inter-        earliest memory (English: M = 45.21 months, SE =
viewed individually by a Chinese research assis-       6.2; Mandarin: M = 47.9 months, SE = 4.6) or on
tant who was fluent in both languages. At the          the amount of information reported (English: M =
beginning of the interview, each participant was       12.33, SE = 1.57; Mandarin: M = 17.5, SE = 2.26).
asked whether he or she would like to proceed in
English or in Mandarin; 12 of the participants
selected the English version and 20 participants       Discussion
selected the Mandarin version. For those partici-
pants who answered in Mandarin, the research           The results of Experiments 1 and 2 yielded two
assistant translated their written answers into        important findings regarding our Asian partici-
English prior to coding.                               pants. First, our findings and those obtained by
                                                       Mullen indicate that cross-cultural differences in
                                                       the age of earliest memories cannot be attributed
Results                                                solely to differences in fluency with English. In
                                                       both our study and in Mullen’s, the same pattern
In the present sample, all of the participants were    of findings was obtained whether participants
born in Malaysia and all had parents whose             were interviewed in their native language or in
ethnicity was Chinese. Furthermore, none of the        English.
participants listed English as their first language;      Second, although most Asian countries share a
25 participants indicated that their first language    similar interdependent social structure (Markus &
was Mandarin.                                          Kitayama, 1991), our findings and those of others
                                                       (Han et al., 1998; Mullen, 1994) clearly show that
   Age of earliest memory. As in Experiment 1,         conclusions based on studies with one Asian cul-
the age of earliest memory was expressed in            ture do not necessarily apply to all others. In both
months. These data were subjected to a one-way         experiments of the present study, for example,
analysis of variance across gender. Consistent with    Chinese females reported significantly later
the findings from Experiment 1, females (M =           memories than Chinese males. In Mullen’s (1994,
54.12 months, SE = 5.21) reported memories that        Study 4) Korean sample, the other hand, this was
were significantly later than those reported by        not the case. Furthermore, in a study of children’s
males (M = 39.62 months, SE = 4.60), F(1, 30) =        autobiographical memory, Han et al. have shown
4.35, p < .05.                                         that although Korean and Chinese children have
                                                       some characteristics in common, there are also
   Amount of information. As in Experiment 1,          important differences in the amount and emo-
the written descriptions of the memories were          tional content of the information they report.
coded for content. Participants were given a single
point for each piece of information provided
about the target event. A one-way analysis of                    GENERAL DISCUSSION
variance yielded a significant effect of Gender,
F(1, 30) = 4.22, p < .05. As in Experiment 1,          The results of the present experiments add to a
females (M = 18.50, SE = 2.70) reported more           growing body of research highlighting the rele-
total information than males (M = 12.31, SE =          vance of culture and gender for the age and con-
1.34).                                                 tent of adults’ earliest autobiographical memories.
                                                       Consistent with our original hypotheses, Maori
   Native language option. Recall that in              adults reported significantly earlier memories
Experiment 1 all participants were required to         than Pakeha or Asian adults, and Asian female
respond in English. In Experiment 2, on the other      adults reported significantly later memories than
                                                                       ADULTS’ EARLIEST MEMORIES            373

Pakeha adults. Inconsistent with our hypotheses,          participants indicated that family stories were an
however, the age of the memories reported by              important source of information for their earliest
Asian male adults was virtually identical to that of      memory.
the memories reported by Pakeha adults.                      In addition, of the Maori participants with
Furthermore, across all three cultures, the               only one Maori parent, participants whose
accounts provided by women contained more                 mother was Maori had a tendency to report
total information than those provided by men.             earlier memories than participants whose father
   At least three factors may have contributed to         was Maori. Past research with American Cauca-
these individual differences in adults’ earliest          sian families has shown that mothers in parti-
memories. First, individual differences in adults’        cular may play an important role in the
memories may begin to unfold in the course of             development of children’s early narrative skill
conversations about the past with other family            (Haden, Haine, & Fivush, 1997). Furthermore,
members during childhood (Mullen, 1994; Wang              in a wide range of cultures, women are generally
et al., 1998). As described earlier, conversations        more likely than men to maintain their heritage
about the past between parents and children are           culture and to encourage children to accept the
thought to play a central role in the emergence           heritage culture as well (Diaz-Guerrero, 1982;
and long-term maintenance of autobiographical             Eisenberg, 1986). These findings raise the possi-
memories (Nelson, 1993c). From a cross-cultural           bility that, in an attempt to preserve the impor-
perspective, there are documented differences in          tance of oral tradition within their family, Maori
the content of past-event narratives directed spe-        mothers may have been more motivated than
cifically at children (Heath, 1982; Markus &              Maori fathers to engage in conversations about
Kitayama, 1991; Miller et al., 1990; Miller, Wiley,       the past with their children. Furthermore, given
Fung, & Liang, 1997; Mullen & Yi, 1995; Scollon           that these mothers were also the primary care-
& Scollon, 1981; Snow, 1983; Wells, 1985). Addi-          givers, they had ample opportunity to engage in
tionally, cross-cultural differences in adults’ past-     converstions about the past with their children.
event narratives have been shown to influence             That is, the motivation to sustain the importance
cross-cultural differences in children’s ability to       of the past, coupled with greater time engaged in
describe their own past experiences (Miller &             child care may have contributed to the differ-
Moore, 1989; Miller & Sperry, 1987, 1988). As             ences in the age of earliest memory within our
such, cross-cultural differences in adults’ earliest      Maori sample. We are currently exploring
memories may have their foundations in the                parent–child conversations about the past in
social context of parent–child discussions about          Maori families.
the past. That is, the way in which these early              Similarly, it is possible that gender-related dif-
conversations emerge shapes the content and               ferences in the content of adults’ early memories
complexity of the initial chapters of an indivi-          may also have their roots in early childhood con-
dual’s autobiography.                                     versations about the past. In the present study, for
   Consistent with the findings just described,           example, the narrative descriptions provided by
cross-cultural differences in conversations about         females contained significantly more information
the past during childhood may have provided the           than those provided by males. Past research with
cornerstone for some of the cross-cultural differ-        American Caucasion families has shown that both
ences observed in the present study. For example,         mothers and fathers are more elaborative during
Maori adults reported significantly earlier mem-          conversations about the past with their daughters
ories than participants from the other two cultural       than they are with their sons (Reese & Fivush,
groups. The cultural relevance of past experience         1993). In turn, girls provide longer and more
has been well documented for the Maori. The               detailed accounts of their own past experiences
traditional saying that ‘‘A Maori walks backwards         (see also Han et al., 1998). On the basis of these
into the future facing the past’’ (Irwin, 1984, p. 63),   findings, Reese and Fivush (1993) predicted that
reflects the importance of both personal and tribal       girls are taught to value the importance of remi-
history that characterises Maori culture. We              niscing and eventually grow up to produce more
hypothesise that this cultural emphasis on the past       elaborative personal narratives than boys. The
may result in a home environment in which talk            present findings are consistent with their pre-
about past experiences is actively encouraged. In         diction.
support of this hypothesis, a greater proportion of          In addition to conversations about the past, it
Maori participants relative to Asian or Pakeha            is possible that differences in socialisation prac-

tices more generally may also contribute to indi-      ciated with it. From this perspective, children
vidual differences in adults’ earliest memories.       who grow up within the Maori community are
For example, within our predominantly Chinese          exposed to events that, by their very nature, may
sample, males consistently reported earlier mem-       be more memorable.
ories than females. Like most countries in the            The inclusion of Tangi in the Maori partici-
world, gender differences in the socialisation of      pants’ earliest personal memories also has
male and female children has had a long history        important implications for the generality of the
in China (Clayre, 1985). While other countries         findings previously reported by Usher and Neis-
have moved towards greater equality between            ser (1993). Recall that Usher and Neisser found
boys and girls, the single-child policy adopted in     that when adults were questioned about events
China in 1973 has only reinforced the greater          that had occurred when they were children, they
economic and social value of male children that        could not remember a family funeral if it had
has persisted for centuries. It has been argued        occurred before the age of 4 years. In the pre-
that greater family emphasis on the personal           sent study, however, the Tangi reported by the
experiences and accomplishments of sons rela-          Maori participants had occurred when these
tive to daughters has contributed to gender dif-       individuals were only 3. This finding suggests
ferences in the children’s social and emotional        that, when they are active participants in fun-
development. Chinese boys, for example, score          erals, some individuals can recall a death in the
higher than Chinese girls on standardised              family that occurred very early in childhood. The
measures of self-concept (Watkins, Dong, & Xia,        discrepancy between our findings and those of
1997). At least one current theory of childhood        Usher and Neisser once again underscores the
amnesia would predict that individual differ-          importance of the larger cultural context in con-
ences in self-concept would contribute to indivi-      clusions regarding adults’ earliest recollections.
dual differences in autobiographical memory in            Telling stories about ourselves and our per-
general and childhood amnesia in particular            sonal experiences appears to be a universal
(Bruner, 1996; Fivush, 1994; Howe & Courage,           human phenomenon. Through these stories, we
1993; Mullen, 1994; Neisser, 1994). The finding        gain a sense of who we are and our place in our
that Chinese males reported earlier memories           family and our community. When and how do
than Chinese females is consistent with such a         we begin to construct our life story? The results
prediction.                                            of the present study demonstrate that individual
   Finally, it is also possible that individual dif-   differences in both culture and gender contribute
ferences in adults’ early childhood memories           to individual differences in adults’ earliest recol-
may be due, at least in part, to individual differ-    lections. Furthermore, it is likely that these indi-
ences in the nature of children’s early experi-        vidual differences may be minimised or
ences (see also Eacott & Crawley, 1998; Usher          enhanced by the greater historical context in
& Neisser, 1993). In Experiment 1, for example,        which they occur. At present, no single theory
several Maori adults provided an account of a          can easily account for all of the cross-cultural
Tangi (funeral). In contrast, funerals were never      and gender differences that have been reported.
mentioned by the Pakeha or Asian adults. This          The next step towards understanding these dif-
difference may reflect cross-cultural differences      ferences will be to pursue prospective studies of
in the nature of the funeral experience. During        autobiographical memory in boys and girls from
the traditional Maori Tangi, for example, mem-         different cultural backgrounds (Han et al., 1998;
bers of the immediate and the extended family          Mullen & Yi, 1995). In our own work in this
take up residence on the Marae (meeting place).        area, we are examining if and how the Maori
Both children and adults sleep in the meeting          oral tradition is reflected in the personal anec-
house and keep watch over the dead body for            dotes that are shared with children in traditional
several days and nights. The emotional content         Maori families.
of the Tangi ritual ranges from extreme sadness
to periods of great celebration. In contrast, tradi-                          Manuscript received 10 July 1999
tional Pakeha funerals in New Zealand usually                               Manuscript accepted 11 March 2000
take place on a single day, and the mourning
process is punctuated by extreme sadness. Chil-
dren may or may not be involved in the funeral
ceremony or in any of the other activities asso-
                                                                           ADULTS’ EARLIEST MEMORIES              375

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