Make It Personal: The Self-reference Effect

An oft-heard suggestion in teaching is that making information relevant to pupils results in better learning of the material. For example, in a lesson about the conditions in the trenches during the First World War, we might ask pupils to imagine what it would be like. Some teachers might even extend this and set a task that requires pupils to produce a piece of creative writing (such as a diary extract) about life in the trenches where they are the main character.

Teachers often also try to relate certain information to the personal experiences of pupils, perhaps asking them to think about a time they experienced something similar or when they have had to carry out a similar task in their own lives.

It could be argued that all this is rather pointless and that the best way to learn is to be given the information and then asked to recall it. This is, indeed, a useful strategy and it does reap rewards (cognitive psychologists call this the testing effect). But can relating to-be-learned information to ourselves enhance this ability to recall such information at a later date?

Information about the self does appear to be treated differently in a cognitive sense than unrelated information. Certainly, my cognitive processes are able to rapidly deal with information that is about me. This is why I can detect the sound of my own name in a noisy and crowded room, full of chatter and competing conversations. We are able to select the information to attend to, especially if the information has a trigger attached (such as our own name or even the title of our favourite TV programme).

The reason we can process such information so rapidly is, in part, due to an interesting piece of cognitive kit known as a schema. Schemas (or schemata, if you prefer) are more readily associated with those blueprints we store in long-term memory that allow us to know what to do when we visit a restaurant or catch a train – we don’t have to re-learn what to do because we have already stored and amended the blueprint each time we have gone to the station, bought a ticket, stood on the platform and hopped on the train when it arrived.

As well as these types of schemas, we also store what is known as self-schemas – our sense of self or self-concept. We hold certain ideas about ourselves as part of these schemas, from our physical appearance and personality to more social components (including our relationship to other people).

If asked to fill out a questionnaire that began ‘I am…’ I would be likely to include ‘I am shorter than average,’ ‘I am male,’ ‘I am a father.’ I might also be more specific, relating to my perceived personality traits: ‘I am an introvert’, ‘I am agreeable’ (both related to the Big 5 model of personality). Some of us might have greater self-complexity, especially if we have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about ourselves: A mother, teacher, centre-forward for the local football team, expert Bridge player.

We know that information about ourselves can be processed very quickly but there is also evidence indicating that information related to our self-schemas is also better remembered than information unrelated to it (see, for example, Lieberman, Jarcho & Satpute, 2004).

The Self-reference Effect.

This is a process known as the self-reference effect. Information that is processed in relation to the self is particularly well remembered, in other words, our self-concept helps us to organise and remember information. If, for example, I was given a list of words to learn and asked to relate each word to something about me, I would stand a much better chance of recalling it later than if I was not given the instruction.

This makes some intuitive sense. Episodic memory does appear to be more resilient than semantic memory, that is, we are more likely to recall events from our own past than some relatively obscure fact we were taught in school. Not that this is always the case, of course, many of us can still recall our time’s tables without ever having related them to some aspect of the self.

Interestingly, using self-referencing recall methods also appears to assist remembering in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders.

This all has to do with how our memory system encodes information. Encoding refers to the process whereby we take information from the environment and transform it in such a way that it can be stored. We might, for example, store it acoustically or as an image; we might store it semantically, especially if it pertains to the definition of an abstract word.

Information about ourselves (our self-schema) is organised in such a way as to make it more readily available than other types of information, essentially because forgetting a historical fact is less problematic than forgetting who we are.

The self-referencing effect, therefore, suggests that relating information to ourselves would certainly make it easier to recall it in the future. It would certainly appear that encouraging pupils to imagine themselves as a historical figure or recalling the time they bumped the back of their head and saw stars (because the occipital lobe is situated at the back of the brain and deals with visual processing) could help in the speedy and more accurate recall of relevant information (such as ‘what type of information is processed by the occipital lobe?’).

Learning isn’t, therefore, just about drilling information until it sticks, because not all information is treated in the same way or processed at the same depth.

We are now better able to explain the meditational processes that occur between the input and the output (to use the highly erroneous computer analogy still favoured by some cognitive psychologists). Neither is there a mysterious black box situated between stimulus and response (as the behaviourists insisted).

What happens in this space is important, relating as it does to memory, perception and attention. In addition, learning is also affected by our self-concept; of how we see ourselves in the world.

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One thought on “Make It Personal: The Self-reference Effect

  1. I was just musing on self consciousness and self-concept. My aunt has a severely damaged occipital lobe which makes it impossible to process visual stimuli, including people including her own children. Her idea of self is confused by hallucinations. My wife has severe brain damage to the next lobe along, affecting language and reason, caused perhaps but over stimulation for the past 30 years which caused other issues. She was able to function well as a teacher nevertheless. The atrophy damages all process of reasoning, thinking and planning as well as speech. Self concept is now non-existent. So the self is the holistic sum of the brain working healthily (the soul as it were) but can be severely disrupted by parts that don’t work healthily. So the self or soul as a self fantasy, a barely reflected on sense that the ‘I’ of our speech is meaningful.


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