At this point we can clarify the influence of the narrative self on episodic recall. To do this, we presuppose only a rather general distinction, namely between the input, output and process of scenario construction: this enables us to delineate three corresponding routes of influence of the narrative self (cf. Figure 2). First, the narrative self may influence the output of scenario construction, by reinterpreting the associated conceptualization. Second, it may influence the process of scenario construction, by constraining and selecting relevant information. Third, it may influence the input of scenario construction, by behavioral embedding and reweighting the relevance of input. We elaborate on these three routes in Sections 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3, respectively. In Section 4.4. we address the various motivations that might drive the narrative self in modulating memory.
Route 1. Influencing the Output of Scenario Construction: (re)Conceptualization of Scenarios and its Effect on the Phenomenology of Memory
In Section 3.3 we already addressed the central tool of the route of reconceptualization, namely how the narrative self might change the content of memories by triggering specific levels of action identification.Footnote 6 In addition to this direct influence by reconceptualization of recalled scenarios, we discuss how the narrative self might, in addition to content, also change the phenomenology of memories through the conceptualization-route. Research shows that various experiential dimensions of memory, such as those distinguished by Sutin and Robins (2007), tend to cluster together (cf. Berntsen and Bohn 2010; Cox and McAdams 2019). Here we focus on how the (re)conceptualization route leads to a particular visual perspective in memory, which in turn modulates its affective dimension (emotional intensity, sense of re-living and valence).
Regarding visual perspective, one can recall an episode from one’s past in two ways. First, from a so called field perspective, where one recalls the episode from a first-person perspective, as if one looks through one’s own eyes. Second, from an observer perspective, where one sees oneself and one’s surroundings, much like an observer would (Nigro and Neisser 1983; McCarroll 2018). Regarding these visual perspectives in memory, Lisa Libby has done extensive research on how field perspectives focus on the concrete details of the episode whereas observer perspectives are associated with understanding the meaning of the event and its role in one’s broader life. For instance Libby, Shaeffer and Eibach (2009) elucidated the bidirectional link between visual imagery and action identification level. Across a series of studies, Libby and colleagues highlighted the interplay between visual perspectives, the construal of a recalled event, and its relation to the agent’s self-concept and life-narratives. We will here discuss some of those studies and how they relate to other dimensions of our phenomenology (for a more extensive review see Libby and Eibach 2011).
To start, consider how the visual perspective in memory interacts with the emotional intensity, valence and sense of re-living of the recalled episode. Based on existing research, Berntsen and Rubin (2006) note that “memories recalled from a field perspective are generally experienced as more emotional and/or contain more information about emotional and other subjective states as compared to observer memories” (ibid., p.1195). Moreover, negatively valenced episodes, such as traumatic experiences, are more often recalled from an observer perspective. Based on their own study, Berntsen and Rubin (2006) point out that “changing perspective from field to observer was consistently associated with reduced reliving qualities, whereas changing from observer to field did not lead to the reverse increase in memory qualities” (ibid., p.1206). They conclude that “observer perspective is associated with a reduction of emotional and sensory reliving of autobiographical memories” (ibid., p.1211).
The Narrative Self May Influence the Emotional Intensity of Episodic Recall
However, Valenti et al. (2011) showed that this might be a simplified view, as relevance to the self seems to also play a role. To investigate this, they conducted a clever study focusing on regretful memories for things that people did or did not do. The idea behind the study is that regrettable actions are experienced as painful, but inactions are only experienced as painful when one considers the consequences of that inaction for one’s life as a whole. So painful regretful inactions are typically construed at a higher level than painful regrettable actions which focus on the details of what one did. The authors found that there is more felt regret for inaction when adopting an observer perspective as opposed to a field perspective. So emotional intensity is dependent not only on the perspective but also on how the episode fits (or in this case, does not fit) in one’s self-narrative. Valenti, Libby and Eibach (2011, p.736) further highlight that regret also increased when the original event was experienced unemotionally but was “infused” with emotion during recall, which points towards the modulating role that narrating a recalled event can have. Indeed Cox and McAdams (2019) emphasize that in an observer perspective “the narrator steps out of the time frame of the original experience and makes global or more general reflections” (ibid., p.134).
Incompatibility of Memorized Events Concerning the Narrative Self Interacts with Perspectivity
Libby and Eibach (2002) found that the (in)compatibility with one’s self-concept affects what visual perspective is adopted. Specifically they found that an observer perspective is adopted when the episode is incongruent with one’s self-concept. Conversely, Libby, Eibach and Gilovich (2005) showed that the adopted visual perspective also affects judgments of changes of the narrative self. In a series of studies they found that if an agent focuses on differences between the current self and past self then adopting an observer perspective will lead to a judgment of more self-change. In contrast, if the agent is focusing on similarities then adopting an observer perspective will lead to a judgment of less self-change.
Focusing on the narrative self reduces the intensity of imagery and reliving of an episodic recall: As CLT would predict, the psychological distance one experiences in a recalled episode is related to the intensity of imagery in reliving an experience (Trope and Liberman 2010. See also Wilson and Ross 2003). In an encompassing study that investigated not only past episodes but future projections as well, Berntsen and Bohn (2010) found a modulating role for narrative. In their own words:
We identified two different dimensions in episodic remembering and episodic future thinking that showed a similar pattern across all four past and future event categories. One was imagery, referring to sensory imagery and a subjective feeling of reliving (or preliving) the event. The other was self-narrative, referring to how personally important and central to the life story and identity the remembered or imagined event was considered to be. Consistently across all four event categories, imagery dropped with increasing distance to the present, whereas self-narrative increased with increasing temporal distance to the present. (Berntsen and Bohn 2010, p.275)
They conclude that “life scripts [i.e. self-narratives] play an important role for providing structure and meaning to the narrative understanding of our personal past, as well as our personal future” (ibid. See also Grysman and Hudson 2011).
In sum, the discussed research fits the proposal that narrative selves modulate the conceptualization (high or low) of an event or action, which impacts the content and also the phenomenology of memories (specifically their visual perspective, degree of affectivity and felt distance of the memory).
Route 2. Influencing the Process of Scenario Construction: Constraining and Selecting (Semantic) Information by Conceptualization of Scenario Components
According to our proposal, ‘what happened’ during an episode may depend on the conceptualization of the recalled event (which in turn was determined by the narrative self). We hypothesize that in the reconstructive process of memory retrieval, different scenario components (such as the gist of an episode and the potentially relevant semantic information that may be used to enrich this gist) may also be affected by how the scenario was conceptualized.
To see why this may be the case, consider the following example from the CLT literature:
[B]y moving from representing an object as a ‘cellular phone’ to representing it as ‘a communication device’, we omit information about size; moving from representing an activity as ‘playing ball’ to representing it as ‘having fun’, we omit the ball. Concrete representations typically lend themselves to multiple abstractions [which are] selected according to its relevance to one’s goals. Thus, if one’s goal is to contact a friend, then ‘a communication device’ is relevant, but size is not” (Trope and Liberman 2010, p.2)
Given the novelty of our proposed reconceptualization of scenario components being influenced by narrative selves (emphasizing construal by conceptualization), there is no direct evidence for this hypothesis in existing literature, because no existing studies adopt the same view of narrative selfhood.Footnote 7 Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that may serve to indirectly substantiate our claim. We summarize such evidence in this subsection.
The Conceptualization of an Event or Event Component Constrains the Informational Contents Going into the Scenario Construction Process
To illustrate, if the event of one’s marriage is recalled with a high-level identity, the resulting content might be e.g. “the day two families became one”, whereas a more low-level identity might lead to the gist being e.g. “walking down the aisle”. In the former case the gist of the memory may be enriched by semantic information about family members, whereas in the latter case semantic information about the wedding venue may be added, leading to different memory contents.
The constraining of semantic information is mainly important for generative retrieval processes. These are distinguished in Conway’s Self-Memory System from direct retrieval processes. Both processes try to access the event-specific autobiographical knowledge base (Conway 2005). However, whereas direct retrieval is sparked by a cue which triggers direct access to this knowledge base (and thus requires no effortful search), generative retrieval is a more ‘top-down’ process where there is a goal-directed search in the knowledge base for a particular memory. It is a more effortful and deliberate process, guided by associative effects: various cues can trigger one another until the memory which fits the goal at stake is found. Importantly, in generative retrieval there is more need for semantic information to be added to the process to guide the retrieval of the specific memory (Uzer, Lee and Brown 2012; Addis et al. 2012). Crucially, the semantic information provided by self-narratives plays a modulating role in generative retrieval (Conway 2005; Berntsen 2010). This has subsequent effects: whether a memory is retrieved in a direct or generative process may affect its characteristics, such as its associated visual perspective (Harris, O’Conner and Sutton 2015).
If the construal of the episode alters how the scenario is constructed (e.g. in terms of which informational contents are processed), then one prediction would be that a negative construal, where the core information contains an action identity that is threatening to the self, is processed differently from a positive construal (in terms of how much or which semantic information is added to the core information). Prima facie, the mnemic neglect model (MN-model, e.g. Sedikides and Green 2009) seems to provide evidence which points in that direction. According to the MN-model, memories that contain information that is threatening to central self-conceptions (but not peripheral self-conceptions) are recalled less, indicating retrieval selectivity. The MN-model suggests that this happens through allocating less processing resources to negative information that is threatening to central self-conceptions. More specifically, it suggests that such threatening information remains on what they call ‘Stage 1’ processing where it is compared to stored semantic (self-)knowledge. Only non-threatening information continues to ‘Stage 2’ for more elaborate processing. An important caveat is that the MN-model conceptualizes the self in terms of either self-conceptions or traits, and not narratives. However, it is not unlikely that semantic self-knowledge regarding especially central self-conceptions take a narrative form. Or that the central self-conceptions (which do not take a narrative form) may be mainly determined by the self-narratives (Singer et al. 2013).
The Conceptualization of an Event Affects the Relevance and Accessibility of Information in Scenario Construction
On the one hand, we can look at short-term accessibility of information. A study by Dumont, Sarlet and Dardenne (2010) indicated how a particular construal of an event modulates its accessibility. Similar to the current proposal, Dumont et al. highlight the interrelation between construal and self-conception, and how this relation affects memory retrieval. In this particular study, the researchers showed that when women were confronted with the stereotype of women being less competent than men, this affected their self-construal to the extent that they felt less competent which led to memories of being incompetent to become more accessible.
Modulating short-term accessibility can also happen indirectly (and perhaps unintentionally) by regulating one’s emotional states. This forms the core of a recent proposal by Pascuzzi and Smorthi (2017), who suggest this indirect link. First, autobiographical narratives contribute to emotion regulation, for instance by changing the construal of an event or embedding it in a self-narrative. Subsequently, the emotional state of the agent, i.e. the endresult of their emotion regulation, may affect memory retrieval and encoding.
Another line of evidence comes from research on the self-reference effect. Roughly, this effect entails that information that is self-relevant is processed differently than non-self-relevant information. Typically, self-relevant information is processed more elaborately – an effect which has also been found in memory (see Symons and Johnson 1997 for an overview). However, it is not entirely clear to what extent the ‘self’ at stake in this effect is a narrative self (cf. Klein 2012). There are studies suggesting that it is, but these may not be deemed decisive. For instance, Carson, Murphy, Moscovitch and Rosenbaum (2016) found that narrative information may contribute to the self-reference effect. Moreover, both the self-reference effect as well as self-narratives are considered as key integrative components in cognitive systems (Conway, Singer and Tagini 2004; Sui and Humphreys 2015; Sui 2016). In this sense, it may be that self-reference serves integration over a shorter time scale, and self-narratives allow for integration over a longer time scale (Conway 2005; Gallagher and Daly, 2018; Newen 2018). The relevant point is that the relevance of information for the self and especially also for the narrative self influences the type of cognitive processing.
On the other hand, the narrative self (through reconceptualization of events) may affect the long-term accessibility of information during scenario construction. For instance, consider the well-documented ‘reminiscence bump’, i.e. the phenomenon that people have an increased recollection for events that took place during adolescence or early adulthood. It is often thought that the increased accessibility and ease of recall for memories in this period has to do with the fact that these memories play a pivotal role in one’s self-narrative (Fitzgerald 1998; Rathbone et al., 2008). That is, these autobiographical memories play a role in constructing key attitudes and feelings of the self-model during the well-known period of discovering one’s own identity by becoming an adult.
The Narrative Self and Reconceptualization May Help to Elucidate the Phenomenon of Semantization
This phenomenon involves that over time, episodic memories may be transformed into semantic memories. Our proposal regarding the narrative self and its influence on reconceptualizing events may help to better understand semantization and its driving force. First, consider the recent neuroimaging study by Linde-Domingo, Treder, Kerrém and Wimber (2019). They found that in reconstructing a memory the flow of information is reversed: when perceiving an object and encoding the episode with the object, low-level perceptual features are processed faster and earlier than high-level conceptual features. But during associative memory recall, conceptual information is reconstructed more rapidly than perceptual details. If semantic information is prioritized during retrieval then this highlights the importance of the narrative self as high-level (abstracted) conceptualizations may be the result of the modulating role of the narrative self. An argument in favor of this view comes from the integrative function of the narrative self. As Conway, Singer and Tagini (2004) emphasized, long-term memories may be biased towards coherence (i.e. what does an event mean to me, my life, my narrative) at the expense of accuracy (i.e. what factually happened).Footnote 8 Crucially, the narrative self is the main tool for establishing coherence in long-term memory and it steers towards high-level conceptualizations (as opposed to low-level conceptualizations) for this task of integration.
So far, we have discussed indirect evidence for the influence of conceptualization on the process of constructing a scenario including scenario components. We are aware that this is only one of many important aspects of processes which constitute scenario construction: concerning this multifactorial process there remain many open questions which we cannot clarify in this article, some of which go beyond our focus on the role of the narrative self, e.g. do changes in a self-narrative transform existing memory traces? Or are new traces formed? And if so, what happens to the old traces over time? Although many details of semantization are still being investigated and debated, we can rely on it as an important subprocess of scenario construction and it is intensely constraint by the narrative self.
Route 3. Influencing the Input of Scenario Construction by Behavioral Embedding and Reweighting its Relevance
A third route through which the narrative self modulates memory relies on two strategies for modulating the input of scenario construction. Central to these strategies is that the narrative self might influence whether and to what extent environmental information serves as a retrieval trigger.Footnote 9 As such, it highlights that memory is tightly interwoven with action (Glenberg 1997; Bluck, Alea and Mroz 2019). Thus, we want to argue that another influence of the narrative self is to alter the environment by organizing the epistemic accessibility and relevance of objects as cues such that it provides cues to memories that fit narrative concerns (e.g. self-enhancement or coherence). Let us elaborate on the two complementary strategies.
First, the strategy of behavioral embedding entails that the narrative self may modulate the accessibility and availability of cues. This is done through acts of scaffolding and niche-construction. There has been ample research on the distributed character of our cognition and how our environment might scaffold our memory (for a discussion and overview see Michaelian and Sutton 2013). Most of this research focuses on short-term or semantic memory, but it has recently been argued that narrative selves and autobiographical memory are similarly distributed (see e.g. Breen et al. 2017; Heersmink 2017, 2018; Dings 2019). For instance, many objects such as pictures, diaries, souvenirs, jewelry, books or social media profiles may serve important functions in our self-narrative. On the one hand such objects may be experienced as part of the self (cf. Gallagher 2013 on ‘extended’ self-aspects). On the other hand, they may fulfil an ‘evocative’ function (Heersmink 2018). That is, objects may evoke particular autobiographical memories. Many of these are integrated into our daily lives such that, according to Heersmink (2018), it is fair to say that we are dependent on those objects to recall particular memories. Here we argue, in line with e.g. Heersmink (2018), that the narrative self can play an important role in managing which object and environmental cues are present, by constructing or seeking an environment that ‘fits’ our narrative (Breen et al. 2017; Dings 2019). This seems particularly the case for people who suffer from pathologies that affect their memory, such as dementia (Heersmink 2017). But it might also be the case more generally, as not being able to engage with particular parts of one’s environment may reduce the agent’s opportunities for ‘situated episodic simulations’ (as Caravá 2020 recently suggested).
A second strategy in which the narrative self influences the input of scenario construction and thereby modulates the Self-Memory System is to alter the relevance of cues (as opposed to making them available or more accessible). More specifically, the narrative self may change their narrative meaning. By changing what an object means to the person, those objects may evoke particular memories or behavior that fits the narrative concerns of that person. The idea that memory contributes to changes in relevance and meaning was also proposed by Glenberg (1997). He argued that for any agent interacting with its environment, it is required to differentiate between objects. To use Glenberg’s example: there are many paths that afford taking, but you might require a particular path (e.g. the path home). Such differentiation then consists in clarifying the relevance of an object and what it affords to you. According to Glenberg, experiences of our environment and what it affords are combined (or ‘meshed’ as he calls it) with e.g. memories of past interactions with that object. As such, “the path becomes the path home and the cup becomes my cup” (Glenberg 1997, p.4).
The current proposal would go a step further in emphasizing how narrative selves might change the meaning of an object. As we have elaborated in previous work, narrative deliberation may help to change whether and when an object is experienced as relevant, thereby directly affecting our agency (Dings 2018, 2020). There we argued that construing an object as affording a particular action, under the influence of narrative concerns, may alter what that object means and, subsequently, affords (Dings 2020). Regarding memory, we would argue that it is not only memories as such which modulate the relevance of an object (as Glenberg suggested), but narrated memories, with a particular conceptualization of the event and the objects in that event.
After clarifying how the narrative self may modulate episodic recall (Sections 4.1–4.3), we now want to discuss why the narrative self modulates episodic memory (either consciously or unconsciously).
It is generally acknowledged that what memory is for may affect e.g. encoding and retrieval. As Bluck, Alea and Mroz (2019) recently put it, “form follows function”. Regarding the various motivations that can guide our memory, Bluck (2003) helpfully distinguished between three functions of autobiographical memory in everyday life: the self-function, social function and directive function. The latter has to do with guiding our actions and enabling our future agency. The social function of autobiographical memory pertains to sharing memories and enabling us to empathize with others. Regarding the self-function, we can think of establishing and maintaining a sense of self-continuity, but we can also think of issues of self-esteem, distinctiveness, belonging, efficacy and meaning.
What is pivotal is the distinction between short-term and long-term motivations of the agent. As Conway, Singer and Tagini (2004, p.491) rightfully noted, in memory there may exist a tension between “adaptive correspondence (experience-near sensory-perceptual records of goal activity) and self-coherence (a more abstracted and conceptually-rich long-term store of conceptual and remembered knowledge)”. In other words, sometimes our memories are geared towards representing a correspondence to what factually happened whereas at other times our memory is geared towards representing an interpretation of what happened such as to cohere with, in particular, our self-narrative (Conway, Singer and Tagini 2004; Bluck 2003; Bluck and Habermas, 2000). As we can see from the quote by Conway, Singer and Tagini, which of these motivations is at play has an effect on the construal of the episode (in terms of low-level identities or abtract high-level identities).
Moreover, the trade-off between correspondence and coherence in the case of narrative selves adds an additional layer of complexity to the issue of self-enhancement. Indeed there is plenty of research which indicates that people are selective in their memory retrieval such as to recollect memories that enhance their self-image (Wilson and Ross 2003; Alicke and Sedikides 2009). In this respect, Sedikides and Green (2009) call memory a ‘self-protective mechanism’. This means that in the case of altering a memory such as to cohere with a self-narrative, there are several motivational options on the table. Because a coherent self-narrative is, presumably, a better self-narrative than an incoherent one, simply striving for coherence can also be seen as a form of self-enhancement. We could call this a weak form of self-enhancement and contrast it with strong forms of self-enhancement where the agent’s primary motivation is not coherence but to self-deceive (Michel & Newen 2010).
For present purposes, what concerns us is the finding that all these authors converge on, is that what the agent is doing (e.g. seeking coherence versus self-enhancing) affects which memories are retrieved and how they are retrieved. In this process, self-narratives play a modulating role. For instance, high points and low points in one’s life-story are processed differently (Cox and McAdams 2019). Indeed making the self salient during retrieval steers people towards interpreting the broader meaning of events, that is, to clarify how this event coheres with their current sense of self and other memories (Grysman and Hudson 2011).