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Psychol Sci. 2019 Mar;30(3):415-423. doi: 10.1177/0956797618818483. Epub 2019 Jan 17.

Automatic Prioritization of Self-Referential Stimuli in Working Memory.

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1 Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality of the Ministry of Education, Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University.
2 Department of Psychology, University of Bath.
3 Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University.


People preferentially attend to external stimuli that are related to themselves compared with others. Whether a similar self-reference bias applies to internal representations, such as those maintained in working memory (WM), is presently unknown. We tested this possibility in four experiments, in which participants were first trained to associate social labels (self, friend, stranger) with arbitrary colors and then performed a delayed match-to-sample spatial WM task on color locations. Participants consistently responded fastest to WM probes at locations of self-associated colors (Experiments 1-4). This self-bias was driven not by differential exogenous attention during encoding or retrieval (Experiments 1 and 2) but by internal attentional prioritization of self-related representations during WM maintenance (Experiment 3). Moreover, self-prioritization in WM was nonstrategic, as this bias persisted even under conditions in which it hurt WM performance. These findings document an automatic prioritization of self-referential items in WM, which may form the basis of some egocentric biases in decision making.


internal attention; open data; open materials; self-bias; self-prioritization effect; self-reference; working memory


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