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Feeling that we are acting “in harmony with ourselves” is one of the most essential elements of building a self-image. However, little is known about how recalling situations in which we were not authentic affects our perception of ourselves. This question was posed by the authors of a paper published several years ago in Social Psychological Bulletin. We are returning to it on the occasion of 2023 coming to an end.

The end of the year is a time that encourages reflection. When preparing new calendars, we often think of the past twelve months, recalling the good and the bad moments. Looking back at past events is necessary, as it helps us construct a picture of who we are and maintain the continuity of our experiences. Recalling good moments also improves our mood and positively affects our overall well-being. So it’s no wonder that, primarily as the year is slowly ending, we sink into our thoughts, recalling past events.

Of course, we all experience situations that we would like to forget. That’s understandable – recalling negative experiences can have serious consequences for our functioning, leading to lowered mood or even increased symptoms of depression. However, as research shows, memories of unpleasant events are not always harmful. For example, results recently published in Nature suggest that focusing on the positive aspects of negative experiences helps people cope with them and may lead to long-term changes in perception. In other words, the more we look for positives, the more we see them, even after a long time.
Three functions of self-memory
The main focus of the paper published in Social Psychological Bulletin was the role of positive and negative memories in the construction of self-image. Anna Sutton and Jason Render, the authors of the article titled “Memories of Who We Are: A Preliminary Identification of Autobiographical Memory Functions in Recall of Authentic and Inauthentic Events” was centered around the issue of authenticity, i.e., the recall of events during which we act in agreement and in disagreement with ourselves. It was hypothesized that recalling situations in which we believed we were ourselves can make a big difference in how we see ourselves now. At the same time, those moments when we don’t act “as us” can cast a shadow over our self-image and be a source of unpleasant emotions.
In addition, the authors investigated whether such memories would also serve other functions for autobiographical memory, namely directive and social functions. Directive function means using memories to solve ongoing problems or plan for the future, and the social function helps build and maintain relationships with others.
Tales of the past
To test their assumptions, the researchers analyzed data collected from 29 participants every week for six weeks. The participants were asked a series of closed and open-ended questions. In the second week of the study, male and female respondents were asked to recall and describe a workplace situation in which they behaved out of their character. During the third week, the task was repeated, and participants were asked to describe a work event during which they were “authentic,” i.e., acted in harmony with themselves.

In both cases, male and female respondents were asked about their recollections, including details of what happened, why they did it, how they felt about it, and whether it was effective. The 57 stories collected were then subjected to coding. The task of the two coders was to determine the extent to which each story fit the three functions of memory: the self-building function, directive function, and social function.
About the future based on the past
The study’s results showed that both types of memories equally often helped the participants build their self-image. This suggests that both recalling situations in which we “weren’t ourselves” and those in which we acted authentically help us understand who we are in the present. Importantly, however, stories describing situations of being inauthentic were much more likely to have a directive function. As observed by the authors, in such stories, participants were significantly more likely to emphasize that they would like to behave differently in the future, suggesting that recalling situations in which we were not ourselves may be particularly important when looking for ways to change our behavior.
As the authors conclude, the results provide further evidence that we need both pleasant and unpleasant memories. Some help us understand who we are, while others help us recognize who we want to be. It is worth noting, however, that the presented results have limitations. First of all, a low number of people participated in the study. Regardless, the published results suggest that, as the year begins, it is worth looking into the past – it is unlikely to harm us, and it may even help us.

More information:
Sutton, A., & Render, J. (2021). Memories of Who We Are: A Preliminary Identification of Autobiographical Memory Functions in Recall of Authentic and Inauthentic Events. Social Psychological Bulletin, 16(3), 1-12.

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