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J Exp Psychol Gen. 1986 Mar;115(1):26-38.

Elaboration, organization, and the self-reference effect in memory.


Relating information to the self (self-referent encoding) has been shown to produce better recall than purely semantic encoding. This finding has been interpreted as demonstrating that self-reference produces a more elaborate memory trace than semantic encoding, and it has been cited frequently as evidence that the self is one of the most highly elaborated structures in memory. The experiments reported in this article challenge this interpretation of the self-reference effect by demonstrating that self-referent and semantic encodings produce virtually identical free recall levels if they are first equated for the amount of organization they encourage. On the basis of our findings we conclude the following: Organization, not elaboration, is responsible for the superior recall performance obtained when information is encoded self-referentially, and organization is not a necessary component of self-referent encoding and can be orthogonally varied within self-referent and semantic encoding tasks. Finally, we discuss how a single-factor theory based on organization can account for many of the self-referent recall findings reported in the literature.

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