Collective Memory and Autobiographical Memory: Bridging the Divide

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Principal investigator:

Howard Schuman

University of Michigan



Sample size: 2086

Field period: 3/26/2011-6/28/2011


Sociologists and psychologists have independently identified the same general period in individual development for the formation of many memories. Yet the cross-disciplinary similarity is rarely recognized, because most psychologists study autobiographical memories of personal events, while most sociologists focus on collective memories of national and world events. We examine autobiographical and collective memories together within two large national cross-section surveys of Americans, with randomization of questions an important part of the design.


Both the ""reminiscence bump"" discovered by psychologists studying autobiographical memory (AM) and and the ""critical years"" emphasized by sociologists studying collective memory(CM) fall within the same broad period of development, roughly ages 5 to 30. But we hypothesize that within that period they are located at different though somewhat overlapping ages.

We also hypothesize that the combination of age-specific interests and the primacy of occurrence of events account for the different content and ages for memories.

Experimental Manipulations

Questions on AM and CM were administered to national samples in randomized order, and in addition randomization was also used to check on the effect of a buffer item between AM and CM.


Ages to which specific AM's and specific CM's can be traced.
Also the content of memories.

Summary of Results

Both types of memory are located primarily in the same broad “reminiscence bump” or “critical period,” identified as approximately ages 5 to 30. However, within that period, autobiographical personal memories typically refer to earlier ages, while collective memories refer to somewhat later ages. In addition, evidence on memories of sports heroes and of especially liked music tend to refer back to interests during the teen years for many individuals. Furthermore, within each age location, the first event experienced as important—its “primacy”—receives extra weight.

Additional Information

As noted, we also extended the conclusions to include memories of preferences for musics and evaluations of sports heroes.


Contract with the University of Chicago Press for a book manuscript (tentatively called called ""Generations and Collective Memory"") to be delivered during 2013. It will include a full chapter about this research tentatively titled: "Personal, national, musical, and sports events: how and why they are remembered"

Schuman, Howard & Amy Corning. (2014). Collective Memory and autobriographical memory: similar but not the same. Memory Studies. 7(2) 146–160.