Skip to main content

Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best

Abstract

Evidence is reviewed that for older adults the period from 10 to 30 years of age produces recall of the most autobiographical memories, the most vivid memories, and the most important memories. It is the period from which peoples’ favorite films, music, and books come and the period from which they judge the most important world events to have originated. Factual, semantic, general-knowledge, multiple-choice questions about the Academy Awards, the World Series, and current events from this period were answered more accurately by two different groups of 30 older adults tested 10 years apart. A cognitive theory based on the importance of transitions and several noncognitive theories are considered as explanations of this pervasive phenomenon.

References

  • Anderson, J. R. (1990).The adaptive character of thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, J. R., &Schooler, L. J. (1991). Reflections of the environment in memory.Psychological Science,2, 396–408.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Atkinson, R. C., &Shiffrin, R. M., (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In K.W. Spence & J. T. Spence (Eds.),The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 2, pp. 90–195), New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bahrick, H. P. (1979). Maintenance of knowledge: Questions about memory we forgot to ask.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,108, 296–308.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bahrick, H. P. (1984). Semantic memory content in permastore: Fifty years of memory for Spanish learned in school.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,113, 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bartlett, F. C. (1932).Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Belli, R. F., Schuman, H., &Jackson, B. (1997). Autobiographical misremembering: John Dean is not alone.Applied Cognitive Psychology,11, 187–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benson, K. A., Jarvi, S. D., Arai, Y., Thielbar, P. R. S., Frye, K. J., &McDonald, B. L. G. (1992). Socio-historical context and autobiographical memories: Variations in the reminiscence phenomenon. In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.),Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 313–322). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bjork, R. A., &Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. Healy, S. Kosslyn, & R. Shiffrin (Eds.),From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honor of William K. Estes (Vol. 2, pp. 35–67). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bornstein, R. F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and metaanalysis of research, 1968–1987.Psychological Bulletin,106, 265–289.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Botwinick, J., &Storandt, M. (1974).Memory, related functions and age. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

    Google Scholar 

  • Botwinick, J., &Storandt, M. (1980). Recall and recognition of old information in relation to age and sex.Journal of Gerontology,35, 70–76.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Braun, K., & Rubin, D. C. (in press). The spacing effect depends on an encoding deficit, retrieval, and time in working memory: Evidence from once presented words.Memory.

  • Bruce, D. (1985). The how and why of ecological memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,114, 80–92.

    Google Scholar 

  • Butters, N., &Cermak, L. S. (1986). A case study of forgetting of autobiographical knowledge: Implications for the study of retrograde amnesia. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.),Autobiographical memory (pp. 253–272). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carstensen, L. L. (1992). Social and emotional patterns in adulthood: Support for socioemotional selectivity theory.Psychology & Aging,7, 331–338.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carstensen, L. L. (1995). Evidence of a life-span theory of socioemotional selectivity.Current Directions in Psychological Science,4, 151–156.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cerella, J. (1985). Information processing rates in the elderly.Psychological Bulletin,98, 67–83.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cerella, J. (1991). Age effects may be global, not local: Comment on Fisk and Rogers (1991).Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,120, 215–223.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cerella, J., &Hale, S. (1994). The rise and fall in information-processing rates over the life span.Acta Psychologica,86, 109–197.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cerella, J., Poon, L.W., &Williams, D. M. (1980). Age and the complexity hypothesis. In L. W. Poon (Ed.),Aging in the 1980s: Psychological issues (pp. 332–340). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, G., Conway, M. A., &Maylor, E. A. (1994). Flashbulb memories in older adults.Psychology & Aging,9, 454–463.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, G., &Faulkner, D. (1988). Life span changes in autobiographical memory. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.),Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues. Vol. 1. Memory in everyday life (pp. 277–282). New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M. A. (1990).Autobiographical memory: An introduction. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M. A. (1997). The inventory of experience: Memory and identity. In D. Jodelet, J. Pennebaker, & D. Paez (Eds.),Political events and collective memories (pp. 21–46). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M. A., &Rubin, D. C. (1993). The structure of autobiographical memory. In A. E. Collins, S. E. Gathercole, M. A. Conway, & P. E. Morris (Eds.),Theories of memory (pp. 103–137). Hove, U.K.: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Conway, M. A., Rubin, D. C., Spinnler, H., &Wagenaar, W. A. (Eds.) (1992).Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 495–499). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Craik, F. I. M., &Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,11, 671–684.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Crovitz, H. F., &Schiffman, H. (1974). Frequency of episodic memories as a function of their age.Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society,4, 517–518.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dempster, F. N., (1988). The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of the psychological research.American Psychologist,43, 627–634.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Erickson, E. H. (1950).Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fitzgerald, J. M. (1988). Vivid memories and the reminiscence phenomenon: The role of a self narrative.Human Development,31, 261–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fitzgerald, J. M. (1996). Intersecting meanings of reminiscence in adult development and aging. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.),Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory (pp. 360–383). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fitzgerald, J. M., &Lawrence, R. (1984). Autobiographical memory across the life-span.Journal of Gerontology,39, 692–699.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Flanagan, O. J. (1992).Consciousness reconsidered. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Franklin, H. C., &Holding, D. H. (1977). Personal memories at different ages.Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,29, 527–532.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fredrickson, B. F., &Carstensen, L. L. (1990). Choosing social partners: How old age and anticipated endings make people more selective.Psychology & Aging,5, 335–347.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fromholt, P., Larsen, P. &Larsen, S. F. (1995). Effects of late-onset depression and recovery on autobiographical memory.Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences,50, 74–81.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fromholt, P., &Larsen, S. F. (1991). Autobiographical memory in normal aging and primary degenerative dementia (dementia of the Alzheimer type).Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences,46, 85–91.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fromholt, P., &Larsen, S. F. (1992). Autobiographical memory and life-history narratives in aging and dementia (Alzheimer type). In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.),Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 413–426). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Galton, F. (1879). Psychometric experiments.Brain,2, 149–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gardiner, J. M., Craik, F. I. M., &Birtwistle, J. (1972). Retrieval cues and release from proactive inhibition.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,11, 778–783.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gergen, K. J., &Gergen, M. M. (1983). Narratives of the self. In T. R. Sarbin & K. E. Scheibe (Eds.),Studies in social identity (pp. 254–273). New York: Praeger.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hale, S., &Myerson, J. (1995). Fifty years older, fifty percent slower? Meta-analytic regression models and semantic context effects.Aging & Cognition,2, 132–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Henderson, G., Tomlinson, B. E., &Gibson, P. H. (1980). Cell counts in human cerebral cortex in normal adults throughout life using an image analysing computer.Journal of the Neurological Sciences,46, 113–136.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holbrook, M. B. (1993). Nostalgia and consumption preferences: Some emerging patterns of consumer tastes.Journal of Consumer Research,20, 245–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holbrook, M. B., &Schindler, R. M. (1989). Some exploratory findings on the development of musical tastes.Journal of Consumer Research,16, 119–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Howes, J. L., &Katz, A. N. (1988). Assessing remote memory with an improved public events questionnaire.Psychology & Aging,3, 142–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Howes, J. L., &Katz, A. N. (1992). Remote memory: Recalling autobiographical and public events from across the lifespan.Canadian Journal of Psychology,46, 92–116.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, R. R., &Einstein, G. O. (1981). Relational and item-specific information in memory.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,20, 497–514.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, R. R., &McDaniel, M. A. (1993). The enigma of organization and distinctiveness.Journal of Memory & Language,32, 421–445.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, R. R., &Smith, R. E. (1996). Accessing the particular from the general: The power of distinctiveness in the context of organization.Memory & Cognition,24, 217–225.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hyland, D. T., &Ackerman, A. M. (1988). Reminiscence and autobiographical memory in the study of the personal past.Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences,43, 35–39.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jansari, A., &Parkin, A. J. (1996). Things that go bump in your life: Explaining the reminiscence bump in autobiographical memory.Psychology & Aging,11, 85–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jernigan, T. L., Press, G. A., &Hesselink, J. R. (1990). Methods for measuring brain morphologic features on MRI: Validation and normal aging.Archives of Neurology,47, 27–32.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kimble, G. A. (1996).Psychology: The hope of a science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kintsch, W., &van Dijk, T. A. (1978). Toward a model of text comprehension.Psychological Review,85, 363–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Komura, H., Miyake, A., Chen, C., Tanizawa, O., &Yoshikawa, H. (1992). Relationship of age at menarche and subsequent fertility.European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology & Reproductive Biology,44, 201–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Landauer, T. K., &Bjork, R. A. (1978). Optimum rehearsal pattern and name learning. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.)Practical aspects of memory: International Conference on Practical Aspects of Memory (pp. 625–632). New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Larsen, S. F. (in press). Memorable books: Recall of reading and its personal context. In M. S. MacNealy & R. Kreuz (Eds.),Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics (Advances in Discourse Processes, Vol. 52). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

  • Longmore, F. J., Knight, R. G., &Longmore, B. E. (1990). A test of remote memory for use with New Zealand subjects.New Zealand Journal of Psychology,19, 17–23.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mackavey, W. R., Malley, J. E., &Stewart, A. J. (1991). Remembering autobiographically consequential experiences: Content analysis of psychologists’ accounts of their lives.Psychology & Aging,6, 50–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mannheim, K. (1952). The problem of generations. In K. Mannheim,Essays on the sociology of knowledge (pp. 276–322). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1928)

    Google Scholar 

  • Marslen-Wilson, W. D., &Teuber, H. (1975). Memory for remote events in anterograde amnesia: Recognition of public figures from news photographs.Neuropsychologia,13, 353–364.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Menken, J., Trussell, J., &Larsen, U. (1986). Age and infertility.Science,233, 1389–1394.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mergler, N. L., &Goldstein, M. D. (1983). Why are there old people: Senescence as biological and cultural preparedness for the transmission of information.Human Development,26, 72–90.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Meudell, P. R., Northen, B., Snowden, J. S., &Neary, D. (1980). Long term memory for famous voices in amnesic and normal subjects.Neuropsychologia,18, 133–139.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moreland, R. L., &Zajonc, R. B. (1979). Exposure effects may not depend on stimulus recognition.Journal of Personality & Social Psychology,37, 1085–1089.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Noble, C. E., Baker, B. L., &Jones, T. A. (1964). Age and sex parameters in psychomotor learning.Perceptual & Motor Skills,19, 935–945.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rabbitt, P., &Winthorpe, C. (1988). What do old people remember? The Galton paradigm reconsidered. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R.N. Sykes (Eds.),Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues. Vol. 1. Memory in everyday life (pp. 301–307). New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rasch, G. (1960).Probabilistic models for some intelligence and attainment tests. Copenhagen: Nielsen & Lydiche.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ribot, T. (1882).Diseases of memory: An essay in the positive psychology (W. H. Smith, Trans.). New York: Appleton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ribot, T. (1906).Essay on the creative imagination. (A. H. N. Baron, Trans.). Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, J. A. (1976). Sampling autobiographical memory.Cognitive Psychology,8, 578–595.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, J. A. (1992). First experience memories: Contexts and function in personal histories. In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.),Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 223–239). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, J. A. (1996). Perspective, meaning, and remembering. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.),Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory (pp. 199–217). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (1982). On the retention function for autobiographical memory.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,21, 21–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (1983). Associative asymmetry, availability, and retrieval.Memory & Cognition,11, 83–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (Ed.) (1986).Autobiographical memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (1989). Issues of regularity and control: Confessions of a regularity freak. In L. W. Poon, D. C. Rubin, & B. A. Wilson (Eds.),Everyday cognition in adult and later life (pp. 84–103). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (1995).Memory in oral traditions: The cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C. (Ed.) (1996).Remembering our past: Studies in autobiographical memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C., &Schulkind, M. D. (1997a). The distribution of autobiographical memories across the lifespan.Memory & Cognition,25, 859–866.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C., &Schulkind, M. D. (1997b). The distribution of important and word-cued autobiographical memories in 20-, 35-, and 70-year-old adults.Psychology & Aging,12, 524–535.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C., &Wenzel, A. E. (1996). One hundred years of forgetting: A quantitative description of retention.Psychological Review,103, 734–760.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. C., Wetzler, S. E., &Nebes, R. D. (1986). Autobiographical memory across the adult lifespan. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.),Autobiographical memory (pp. 202–221). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Salthouse, T. A. (1991). Mediation of adult age differences in cognition by reductions in working memory and speed of processing.Psychological Science,2, 179–183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Salthouse, T. A. (1994a). Aging associations: Influence of speed on adult age differences in associative learning.Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory, & Cognition,20, 1486–1503.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Salthouse, T. A. (1994b). The nature of the influence of speed on adult age differences in cognition.Developmental Psychology,30, 240–259.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Salthouse, T. A. (1996). The processing-speed theory of adult age differences in cognition.Psychological Review,103, 403–428.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schuman, H., Belli, R. F., &Bischoping. (1997). The generational basis of historical knowledge. In J.W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, & B. Rime (Eds.),Collective memories of political events (pp. 47–77). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schuman, H., &Rieger, C. (1992). Collective memory and collective memories. In M. A. Conway, D. C. Rubin, H. Spinnler, & W. A. Wagenaar (Eds.),Theoretical perspectives on autobiographical memory (pp. 323–336). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schuman, H., Rieger, C., &Gaidys, V. (1994). Collective memories in the United States and Lithuania. In N. Schwartz & S. Sudman (Eds.),Autobiographical memory and the validity of retrospective reports (pp. 313–333). New York: Springer-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schuman, H., &Scott, J. (1989). Generations and collective memories.American Sociological Review,54, 359–381.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sehulster, J. R. (1996). In my era: Evidence for the perception of a special period of the past.Memory,4, 145–158.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stewart, A. J., &Healy, J. M., Jr. (1989). Linking individual development and social changes.American Psychologist,44, 30–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Storandt, M., Grant, E. A., &Gordon, B. C. (1978). Remote memory as a function of age and sex.Experimental Aging Research,4, 365–375.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Terry, R. D., DeTeresa, R., &Hansen, L. A. (1987). Neocortical cell counts in normal human adult aging.Annals of Neurology,21, 530–539.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tulving, E., &Pearlstone, Z. (1966). Availability versus accessibility of information in memory for words.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,5, 381–391.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tulving, E., &Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory.Psychological Review,80, 352–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tversky, A., &Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability.Cognitive Psychology,5, 207–232.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Underwood, B. J. (1957). Interference and forgetting.Psychological Review,64, 49–59.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Warrington, E. K., &Sanders, H. I. (1971). The fate of old memories.Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,23, 432–442.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wechsler, D. (1987).Wechsler Memory Scale—Revised: Manual. San Antonio: Psychological Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wickens, D. D. (1970). Encoding categories of words: An empirical approach to meaning.Psychological Review,77, 1–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Woodcock, R. W., &Johnson, M. B. (1991).Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery—Revised: Tests of cognitive ability. Allen, TX: DLM Teaching Resources.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure.Journal of Personality & Social Psychology Monograph Supplements,9(2, Pt. 2), 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences.American Psychologist,35, 151–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zola-Morgan, S., Cohen, N. J., &Squire, L. R. (1983). Recall of remote episodic memory in amnesia.Neuropsychologia,21, 487–500.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David C. Rubin.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Rubin, D.C., Rahhal, T.A. & Poon, L.W. Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best. Memory & Cognition 26, 3–19 (1998). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03211366

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03211366

Keywords

  • Early Adulthood
  • Autobiographical Memory
  • Proactive Interference
  • News Story
  • Remote Memory