Research Goals

Imagine your first day of college. Is your memory an exact replica of how the event unfolded? How has this memory changed over time, as you and your environment have changed? My research program investigates the cognitive and social factors that affect autobiographical memory, broadly defined as memory of the events in one’s life. Remembering is an active process; every time people recall information, whether it is an event or factual knowledge, the memory is reconstructed. Over time, changes occur in the phenomenological characteristics of the memory (such as the sense of reliving during remembering), the substantive details of the memory (who was there and what happened), and how the memory is relayed to an observer (the language used and the coherence of the narrative). I have developed three lines of inquiry to elucidate the cognitive processes involved in remembering our past: (1) Given that autobiographical memory by definition involves the person remembering, how does our self-system influence our memory of the stories of our lives? (2) Remembering, especially for autobiographical events, is often a social process. How does the environment influence our memory of the past? and (3) How do the details of the event influence the subjective experience that accompanies remembering?

The self-system affects remembering
The majority of my graduate research, including my dissertation, focused on the relationship between the self-system and remembering. The self-system is a dynamic yet stable system of self-referential information. Specifically, I study how people’s self-referential ability to focus on how they are behaving, feeling, and thinking provides a powerful source of self-knowledge that is utilized in the dynamic reconstruction of autobiographical memories. At any given point in time, different self-knowledge is activated, which gives rise to a working self-concept in the current situation. The self-concept and activated self-knowledge at the time of reconstruction can influence how an event related to one’s identity is remembered (Deffler, in prep).

For this line of inquiry, I conducted a large prospective longitudinal study across four years that examines the impact of an identity change, or transition, on memory for events related to the identity. My 150 participants entered college as pre-med majors. During their first semester, the students narrated and rated memories of events that inspired them to be pre-med as well as events unrelated to this identity, and imagined themselves in the future. About half of this sample of undergraduates eventually left the pre-med program. When this departure occurred, the transitioned participant and a matched control who had not left pre-med were brought back into the lab and recalled the same events again. I study the impact that this identity change (relinquishing one’s plans for a medical career) has on autobiographical remembering by analyzing the changes over time in the subjective experience, coherence, and content of the memories of the past and projections into the future as a function of transition.

I collaborated throughout graduate school with other psychology faculty and am currently pursuing collaborations with my colleagues at Rollins College, which allow me to pursue projects examining other social influences on memory. Personality characteristics can moderate how a person remembers, as well as how he or she narrates the memory. I have experimentally examined how learning and memory are influenced by intellectual humility, or the willingness to consider that one’s viewpoints and beliefs may be wrong. Although intellectually humble people are no different than intellectually arrogant ones in terms of response bias, intellectual humility was associated with higher sensitivity, or knowing the difference between previously learned and new items (Deffler, Leary, & Hoyle, 2016).

The environment affects remembering
Beyond characteristics of the person, such as identity or trait variables, the environment in which an event occurs can influence how it is remembered. Specifically, I showed that the background on which an unfamiliar face is presented influences the perceived familiarity of this unknown face, with highly familiar backgrounds (e.g., a picture of the Eiffel Tower) associated with unfamiliar faces being perceived as more familiar (Deffler, Brown, & Marsh, 2015). Recognition and recall of familiar faces may also be influenced by the social environment in which they are encountered. The misnaming of familiar individuals is influenced by one’s mood as well as one’s relationship to the misnamed. You are more likely to call your daughter the wrong name when you are tired, frustrated, or angry, and the name that you call her is likely to be the name of another family member, rather than the name of a friend or acquaintance (Deffler, Fox, Ogle, & Rubin, 2016). Remembering does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, the physical and social environment influences, sometimes unconsciously, our memory retrieval.

Details of the event itself affect remembering
The characteristics of the event being recalled can also influence the reconstruction of the memory and the phenomenology associated with remembering (e.g., how vivid the memory is; the intensity of the emotions while remembering). My research has shown that events encoded with more spatial details (such as knowing where certain actions occurred) tend to be remembered with a greater sense of reliving, vividness, and belief in the accuracy of the memory than events with fewer spatial details. By using structural equation modeling, I showed that spatial information is the strongest predictor of these three properties (Rubin, Deffler, & Umanath, submitted). This phenomenology can provide a sense of mental time travel while remembering, and may be a driving force in making an event “episodic-like”.

Long-term research goals and interests
In the long-term, my goals as a new faculty member are to form new collaborations with other scientists who are interested in memory, identity, and narrative, and continue to encourage undergraduates to become involved in all aspects of my research. My future work will examine trait-like identities, in that they are not so easily changed, and how these less-tractable aspects of the self-concept impact what we learn, what we remember, and how we remember it. For example, how does culture impact our views of ourselves in the future?  One current avenue of inquiry that I will expand as a new faculty member examines how the typical expected life course, or life script, of a person varies. Specifically, how do the negative events that people expect to happen to them in the future vary according to gender and culture?

Narrating past experiences often serves as a means to bond people together or to collectively create a shared version of events. However, the self-concept is dynamic and the social environment can influence the salience of different identities. A woman in a room full of men may be more aware of her identity as a woman; does this activation of her “woman” self-knowledge have long-term consequences because of how she remembers and narrates her past while in that room? To answer this question, I will look more specifically at how self-knowledge is differentially activated during the reconstruction of an autobiographical memory by experimentally manipulating the working self-concept. I will then examine how the salience of self-knowledge impacts immediate and future retellings of the event. In a similar vein, I am currently developing a study to investigate how the social environment influences one’s memory for information and its source. Specifically, how do the characteristics of a source (e.g., gender) influence one’s recall of the source of information, the context in which it was learned, and the gist of the information?

The relationship between the self-system and memory is not a one-way street. Rather, memories may be recruited to support or enhance identity, self-presentation, self-control, and other self-system processes. I am currently establishing a collaboration with Duke’s academic advisors to predict whether students will transfer out of the pre-med curriculum, based on how they remember events related to their pre-med identity before they transition. The details of a remembered event can impact its phenomenology; in turn, subjective experience, such as intensity of emotions, may influence how important a memory is to a person’s identity and serve as a means through which the individual validates and maintains that identity. I have particular interest in how memory and narrative can support academic success, particularly in diverse populations. After identifying potential memory characteristics that support identity and influence persistence, I will test an intervention that targets and enhances these supportive memory characteristics in students that are at risk for leaving a difficult but rewarding academic trajectory.

Methodologies and undergraduate involvement
My background and training allow me to integrate theories and methodologies from both cognitive and social psychology. My research techniques span survey research conducted on multi-ethnic populations, classic experimental studies, and longitudinal data collection. My methodologies allow for versatile exploration of research questions. My participants provide narratives while remembering that are scored for coherence and content (e.g., Rubin, Deffler, et al., 2016), rate the phenomenology they experience while remembering using the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire, and indicate how familiar they are with a particular stimulus in more traditional laboratory paradigms (e.g., old/new recognition tasks). I am trained in multiple statistical analytic techniques and commonly analyze complex datasets by using multivariate techniques, including structural equation modeling and multilevel modeling.

Involvement in research is an integral part of a liberal arts education. Because my work is behavioral and involves relatively simple designs, it is feasible to conduct my research program at a small liberal arts school with undergraduate contributions. My undergraduate mentees extensively participate in the research process by formulating substantive questions, designing and programming studies, administering studies to participants (both online and in-person), compiling data, analyzing data, and presenting results for publication (including posters, talks, and co-authored journal submissions). One such project was so successful that it was covered by Scientific American and NPR, among other news outlets (Deffler, Fox, Ogle, & Rubin, 2016). My students find the work to be challenging but rewarding as they apply the findings to their own memories and experiences and learn new and interesting ways of answering complex psychological questions.