When Qi Wang, PhD, began her graduate studies at Harvard, she thought she had a broad knowledge of psychology research. After all, she had graduated with high honors in psychology from Peking University. But as she began working with her new advisers, Wang realized that she'd never even heard of their research area: autobiographical memory.

Wang hit the library and soon discovered there was a good reason for her knowledge gap: Although Americans are obsessed with their personal stories, traditional Chinese culture tends to discourage such reminiscing. In fact, only recently have Chinese authors embraced autobiography, Wang found.

Since then, Wang—now a psychology professor at Cornell University—has built her career on exploring why Americans are so interested in personal memories and what role this fascination plays in the development of our identities. And she's finding that the way Chinese and Americans tell stories—especially to children—may play an important role in passing down cultural values.

What is autobiographical memory?

Generally speaking, autobiographical memory is memory for significant instances in a person's life. Children start to be able to remember events from quite an early age—about 2, 2-and-a-half, as soon as they can talk. Of course, the ability to remember experiences increases quite rapidly in the preschool years.

How does the development of personal memories affect our identities?

Autobiographical memory serves many important functions. One of them is to define the self and identity. Things that happened in our past help define who we are at present and who we will be in the future. They provide the raw materials for our life stories that our identities are made of. Also, when you share those memories with friends or family, they can serve to strengthen social bonds. It also serves an emotional regulation function: When you feel sad, you can think about the good things that happened in your life.

How does cultural background shape people's memories?

What we have found is that when Chinese children and adults remember things in the past, they tend to focus on social interactions and the roles of significant others in those events. European-Americans are more focused on their own roles, their feelings, their preferences and their thoughts in the events. They are the main characters of the story.

For example, they all talk about birthday parties. European-American children might talk about what presents they got, how happy they were, what they did and what kind of cake they had. The Chinese children will talk about who came and what kinds of things went on between different individuals, who said what and who gave them the presents.

How is this tendency passed down from generation to generation?

Parents' conversations with their children are key to the process. European-American mothers are more likely to refer to past events than Asian mothers. Also the way they talk about the past is very different, we have found in our own research. For example, European-American mothers tend to share memories in the form of storytelling, and they invite the child to co-construct the story with them. The Chinese mothers use a more pragmatic style where they ask a question and the child answers it—it's more like a memory test as opposed to storytelling. So this type of conversation seems to reinforce the hierarchical relationship between mother and child—the mother is the person who is directing the conversation, the child is expected to give answers—as opposed to an equal partnership where the American mother and child construct the story together. This pragmatic style is less facilitative for children's autobiographical memory development over the long term.

What do Chinese mothers reminisce about with their children as compared with American mothers?

When we ask Chinese and American mothers to nominate important events to discuss with their children, Chinese mothers are more likely to bring up social events such as children having conflicts with others. European-American mothers are more likely to nominate personal events such as when the child experienced fear—saw a wild animal, heard a thunderstorm, something like that. When they share memories of fearful events, European-American mothers often provide emotional resolutions , they reassure the child, saying, "You were scared, but everything's OK now." When the Chinese mothers talk about social conflicts, they say things like "You don't have to fight with your cousin; she's your cousin, you should be friends with her." They try to help the child to re-establish a damaged relationship.

What's the significance of these contrasting memory styles?

Those different versions of autobiographical memory can reinforce different cultural construals of the self. Memories that focus on the individual as a central character of the story help to reinforce an independent self, whereas memories that focus on important others and social interactions help to reinforce an interdependent self.

One style is not better than the other. They are each adaptive within their own cultures. In American culture, remembering your own experiences is critical, because you need to construct a unique identity. Elaborate memory conversations are important to help children learn that skill. In Chinese culture, the hierarchy of the mother-child relationship is more important than building a unique identity. In both cases, the mother-child conversation is a socializing practice that tends to reinforce what's important in the culture. In American culture, it's important to have a child who is outgoing, who is not fearful, who has her own thoughts and feelings, who can do independent exploration. In Chinese culture, it's very important to make peace with others, to establish social harmony with others.

Further reading

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

  • Wang, Q. (2008). Being American, being Asian: The bicultural self and autobiographical memory in Asian Americans. Cognition, 107, 743-751.

  • Wang, Q. (2007). "Remember when you got the big, big bulldozer?" Mother-child reminiscing over time and across cultures. Social Cognition, 25, 455-471.

  • Wang, Q. (2006). Culture and the development of self-knowledge. Current Directions in Pyschological Science, 15, 4, 182-187.

  • 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, 473-495.