Dorthe Berntsen: "Always look on the bright side of life: Social and cultural constraints on autobiographical memory"


Autobiographical memory is our ability to remember and consciously relive personal experiences from our past. Although we are inclined to think about this type of memory as a highly personal endeavour, autobiographical memory is greatly influenced by cultural norms.
While the modern individual has many more options regarding his or her personal life than an individual in a so-called traditional society, the idea of a normative biography still exists in most people’s mind.

Cultural life scripts are schemas for culturally expected life events and their timing in a prototypical life course. Cultural life scripts overrepresent positive events and events expected to take place in young adulthood. In addition to influencing peoples’ plans for their future, cultural life scripts structure recall from autobiographical memory and influence what we choose to include in our personal life stories.

Evidence shows substantial overlap between the distribution of autobiographical memories over the life span when people are asked for memories of important and/or highly emotional events, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the distribution of normative life events when people are asked to produce life scripts. In both cases an increase of reported events is found in young adulthood, and in both cases, this increase is limited to events with a positive emotional content.

Cultural life scripts provide a culturally accepted structure to the personal life story, and, thus, forms a culturally sanctioned basis for personal identity. This structure is acquired in childhood and may break down in clinical disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. In healthy individuals it helps to maintain a positive outlook towards the personal past as well as the personal future.