What is it about?

When older adults (people over the age of 65) describe memories of things that happened in their own lives, they tend to include lots of general information that does not describe the specific event they are describing; young adults (age 18-30) tend not to do this. Previously, it has been suggested that older adults include these general details either because they think of them and are unable to prevent themselves from saying them out loud (an "inhibition deficit") or because they are compensating for an inability to remember many specific details about what happened. However, there is little direct evidence for either of these explanations. In contrast, a separate line of research has suggested that older adults tell more interesting stories than young adults, and that they value different kinds of information in their stories. This is interesting, because when people describe memories of their own lives it is an inherently social activity, and people may naturally try to make their stories interesting for the listener. In our study, we asked whether older adults include more general details in their memories because they are trying to tell a good story. We asked young and older adults to each describe a personal memory twice - once as though it was to be included in a bestselling autobiography, and once as though it was to be provided to police as part of a witness statement. We found that both groups included more general details when describing the memory for an autobiography. Older adults also included fewer specific details for the autobiography than for the witness statement. Finally, we provided the participants with a set of possible characteristics of a good story and asked them to rank them in order of importance. While young adults rated 'specific detail', 'grammar', and 'providing full descriptions' more highly than older adults, older adults rated 'explaining not just describing' and 'linking ideas' more highly than young adults. Together, these findings suggest that older adults have a preference for a more general style of storytelling that focuses on making sense of information rather than providing lots of detail, and that, to a greater extent than young adults, they may attempt to tell interesting stories when describing their personal memories.

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Why is it important?

These are important findings because they suggest that the inclusion of these more general, explanatory details in the description of personal memories is not necessarily a sign of cognitive decline, as was previously thought. The findings present an alternative perspective in which these memory details reflect a more positive change that occurs with ageing. The findings also highlight that study participants may interpret the instructions they receive from researchers in a way that the researchers were not necessarily expecting. This is an important consideration for researchers attempting to draw accurate conclusions from the results of their studies.

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This page is a summary of: Nonepisodic autobiographical memory details reflect attempts to tell a good story., Psychology and Aging, April 2024, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/pag0000805.
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