Can the ‘self’ enhance children’s verbal working memory?

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


There is consensus in the psychological literature that information processed in relation to the self rather than other people results in both memory and attentional advantages among adults and children. This has been termed the ‘self-reference effect’. It has been suggested that self-referencing may be used to reduce processing demand on working memory (WM), however, as this assumption is untested, the present study aimed to explore the direct relationship between self and verbal WM. WM is a cognitive system of limited capacity that is used daily and refers to our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds while we are using that information (e.g. remembering a phone number or shopping list).

To investigate the impact of self on verbal WM, 7- to 9-year old children completed a listening recall task, which included some trials that were made self-referent by the inclusion of the child’s own name. Each trial in a set involved listening to a sentence then making a judgement about whether or not the sentence made sense. At the end of each set of sentences, participants were asked to recall, in any order, the last word in each sentence. Participants began with a set of two sentences, and proceeded sequentially to a maximum of nine, depending on successful recall of the words in the previous set. If a child failed to recall the full set of words in a set, two further attempts were provided before the test was stopped. The number of sentences in the largest set successfully completed was taken as a measure of the child’s verbal WM span.

Performance was measured across three conditions (self, other and control). While the child’s name was included in the self trials, the other trials included an unknown referent called Sam, and the control trials included no referent. An example of a sentence within the self and other trials was: ‘[name] saw many frogs in the pond’, whereas a control trial may read, ‘there were many frogs in the pond’. Here, participants would indicate that the sentence made sense, as well as hold the word ‘pond’ in memory.

WM span and the number of attempts were compared between the self, other and control conditions. Results revealed that span for self was significantly higher than both other and control trials, and children required fewer attempts for the self trials than other and control.

The study is the first to explore the impact of self on WM and suggests that self-referencing may be used to alleviate demand on children’s verbal WM. These findings may have important implications for education, particularly in math, as a low WM capacity has often been linked to poor math performance. Therefore, including the self in math which potentially rely on verbal WM processes, such as math word problems, may alleviate WM demand and facilitate processing.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2021
EventSociety for Research in Child Development biennial meeting - virtual event
Duration: 7 Apr 20219 Apr 2021


ConferenceSociety for Research in Child Development biennial meeting
Abbreviated titleSRCD 2021
Internet address


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