How do self-reference effects change across childhood?

Sheila J. Cunningham, Jacqui Hutchison, Josephine Ross

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Encoding information with reference to self is associated with robust memory biases known as self-reference effects (SREs). Adults show consistent ‘incidental’ SREs (iSREs), whereby stimuli incidentally co-presented with self-cues receive a memory boost. They also show significantly larger ‘evaluative’ SREs (eSREs), elicited by consciously thinking about or evaluating the self while processing stimuli (Turk et al., 2008). Research suggests that young children (4-6 years) show a different pattern to adults, with iSREs and eSREs of being elicited that are of equal magnitude (Cunningham et al., 2014). The explanation for the different ratio of eSRE to iSRE magnitude between adults and children is that adults are able to make more use of their expansive autobiographical memory system to support eSREs, a system that may not be activated in iSREs, nor function effectively in children. However, this explanation is difficult to test because of a lack of understanding of the developmental trajectory of SREs: it is not clear when the early childhood pattern (eSRE=iSRE) morphs into the adult pattern (eSRE>iSRE). The current study comprised two experiments designed to chart this trajectory.

We used standard iSRE and eSRE tasks in a between-participants design. In both tasks, the children completed encoding trials in which an image of a familiar household item (e.g., kettle, apple, teddy) was presented to the left or right of an image of either the child’s own face (self-referent trials) or that of an unknown child (other-referent trials). After the items were co-presented for 1500ms, they were replaced by two yellow circular onscreen buttons. In the eSRE task, these buttons contained a smiley and neutral face respectively, and the child was asked to press one to indicate whether or not the person shown would really like the object. In the iSRE task, the buttons were blank and the child was asked to press one to indicate whether the object had appeared to the left or right of the face. Thus the eSRE task required the child to consciously consider stimuli in relation to the referent, whereas the iSRE task did not. A subsequent memory phase tested children’s source memory for the objects.

In Exp 1, we tested six- to eleven-year-old children (N=189) and found significantly better memory for self-referenced than other-referenced items in both the eSRE and iSRE tasks. The magnitude of the eSRE was not greater than the iSRE, but eight-year-olds’ eSRE scores were affected by ceiling effects. Exp 2 therefore tested eight- to eleven-year-old children (N=96) on the same eSRE and iSRE tasks with larger stimulus sets. This data revealed a significantly higher eSRE than iSRE, suggesting that by eight years of age, self-reference effects follow an adult pattern (eSRE>iSRE).

These results suggest that by eight years old, children are able to apply stored knowledge to preferentially support self-referenced information in eSRE tasks, as adults do. This has implications not just for our theoretical understanding of self-development, but also for the growing literature on applying self-reference effects to support children’s learning (e.g., Cunningham et al., 2018).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 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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