Cognitive Aging

In healthy aging, older adults are less able to accurately remember events and the details of those events, an episodic memory deficit. This often, but not always (Huff & Umanath, in press), leads older adults to make more memory errors. In contrast, general knowledge and its use either improve or remain stable over the lifespan. Here, “knowledge” refers broadly to general knowledge about the world, vocabulary, schemas, work-related skills, and practical abilities gained over a lifetime. Older adults show a tendency to rely on this knowledge to support their remembering. 

We are interested in the positive, and potentially compensatory, influences of knowledge on older adults’ remembering (see Umanath & Marsh, 2014). Many open questions remain in understanding when prior knowledge can serve a protective role in older adults’ remembering. We still do not know the answers to basic questions, including: Does prior knowledge scaffold retrieval of specific memories or guide guessing? 

Beyond theoretical questions, such research has broader implications for benefiting older adults’ everyday memory experiences. This line of work fits into our interest of more generally understanding ways in which older adults can be encouraged to use their intact capacities and abilities to compensate for other memory deficits (e.g., Umanath, Toglia, & McDaniel, 2016). The broader goal is to improve older adults’ everyday memory experiences, so that their sense of self-efficacy in memory increases, which likely has cascading benefits for broader cognition and health.

Learn more: 
Understanding How Prior Knowledge Influences Memory in Older Adults
Umanath, S. & Marsh, E.J. (2014). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 408-426.
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Autobiographical Memory

Endel Tulving distinguishes event-related memories from knowledge using a number of characteristics (Tulving, 1972, 1983), especially privileging the sense of “reliving,” or mental time travel back to an event. As part of a push for fundamental theoretical change in our conception of explicit memory (Rubin & Umanath, 2015), we have begun to explore what gives rise to reliving, such as memory of an event’s spatial layout — the orientation of objects and placement of people and actions within the event (Rubin, Deffler & Umanath, under review). Much behavioral work remains to be done in understanding what more concrete concepts can be used to define and study memories for events.

Yet, these event-related memories do not exist in isolation; they are shaped by the shared norms and prescriptions of a person’s culture as to the order and timing of important transitional events: a cultural life script. With cross-cultural communication increasing, knowledge and understanding of the diversity between and within cultures becomes vital for building amiable and mutually beneficial relationships. Interestingly, when asked, many people’s most important personal life events do not match the cultural life script exactly, indicative of diversity within a culture. Even some commonly experienced life story events (e.g., moving to a new place, playing a sport) are left out of the cultural life script (Umanath & Berntsen, 2013)

However, the question remains: Why are some common life story events part of the cultural life script while others are not (Umanath & Berntsen, in press)? Since little work has been done on investigating the nature of personal life stories and their relationship with cultural life scripts, the future directions are countless. For example, what do deviations from the cultural life script really indicate about a person’s relationship to the standard culture? What influence do subcultures or adopted cultures have on individual life stories and on the standard cultural life script? The applications of such work are much broader than autobiographical memory, providing an opportunity to improve cross-cultural relations within diverse environments.

Learn more
Event Memory: A Theory of Laboratory, Autobiographical, and Fictional Memories of Events
Rubin, D.C. & Umanath, S. (2015). Psychological Review, 122, 1-23.

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Detection & Correction of Errors

We are constantly exposed to erroneous information in the world, whether inadvertently, in pursuit of entertainment, or through sheer carelessness. Knowledge is not as stable and immutable as we might think or wish for it to be. These casual encounters with errors do influence our memories for correct knowledge; people often reproduce recently seen errors even when they have the correct knowledge stored in memory (Marsh & Umanath, 2014). One hope is that successfully detecting these errors can protect against acquiring them and allowing them to infiltrate our knowledge base. While detecting errors in fictional stories or feature films can reduce the effects on memory (Umanath & Marsh, 2012; Umanath, Butler, & Marsh, 2012), they do not wipe out suggestibility and the acquisition of errors. Instead, it seems that in addition to explicitly looking for errors, subsequently receiving clear feedback on what the inaccuracies were is necessary to extinguish suggestibility (using history-related films, Umanath, et al., 2012). 

A clear open question here is why people so easily fail to apply their knowledge, often overlooking errors and, moreover, later reproducing erroneous information that contradicts their stored knowledge. With its educational implications (Marsh, Butler, & Umanath, 2012), we intend to continue this line of research in hopes of understanding how we can improve detection of the errors and, in turn, protect against errors and misleading information from entering the knowledge base.

Learn more:
Knowledge Neglect: Failures to Notice Contradictions With Stored Knowledge
Marsh, E. J. & Umanath, S. (2014). In D.N. Rapp and J. Braasch (Eds.), Processing Inaccurate Information: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives from Cognitive Science and the Educational Sciences, pp. 161-180. Cambridge, MIT Press.

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Collective Memory 

Collective memory refers to memories shared by a group of people that shape that group’s identity. We are interested in increasing our understanding of how groups all around the world remember (and fight) over their past. Although the study of collective memory opens up new ways of thinking about how memory in general can be distributed, shared, and even unify a large group of people, it is not only interesting from a scientific point of view. Indeed, the importance of gaining knowledge on how large groups of people form, establish, fight over, retain, and renegotiate memories about critical parts of their pasts lies in the fact that these memories are usually of high importance to group identity. As history shows, the emotional charge that is associated with such memories in the service of “identity projects” or “illusions of destiny (Sen 2006)” — sometimes on the level of nations, sometimes on the level of smaller subgroups within nations — can lead to conflicts between groups, some of which may go on for long periods of time and may involve violent outbursts or even cause war. 

These considerations stress the need for accumulating more knowledge about how groups of different people come to remember the same important historic events in strikingly different ways, but also about the conditions under which differences in collective remembering lead to conflicts between different groups of people. To find out how such shared collective remembering happens is an avenue for future research, alongside empirical work digging deeper into the mechanisms underlying collective memories.

Learn more: 
Collective Memory: How Groups Remember Parts of Their Pasts
Abel, M., Umanath, S., Wertsch, J. V., & Roediger, H. L. III. (2018). In M. L. Meade, C. B. Harris, P. Van Bergen, J. Sutton,  & A. J. Barnier (Eds.), Collaborative Remembering: Theories, Research, and Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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