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Transition Theory: Evidence from Personal Transitions and Their Role in the Contents and Organization of Autobiographical Memories Open Access


Other title
life script
autobiographical memory
transition theory
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Shi, Liangzi
Supervisor and department
Brown, Norman R. (Psychology)
Examining committee member and department
Noels, Kimberley (Psychology)
Mou, Weimin (Psychology)
Thomsen, Dorthe (Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Aarhus University)
Dixon, Peter (Psychology)
Berry, Tanya (Physical Education and Recreation)
Department of Psychology

Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
The retrieval curve of autobiographical memories across the lifespan is not an Ebbinghaus forgetting curve; it peaks at adolescence and early adulthood. One mainstream theory of autobiographical memory uses “the self” to explain the reminiscence bump and other phenomena in the field. In this dissertation, we argue that autobiographical memory can be “self-less.” There is only a small group of transitional events that may be important to the sense of “who I am.” In most cases, especially when elicited by neutral words, autobiographical events are usually mundane anecdotes. We explore the reasons why people remember self-irrelevant events and use Transition Theory to predict when/where an increased retrieval of such events are most likely to occur. Transition Theory assumes that major life transitions delineate lifetime periods and organize autobiographical memory. Three categories of life transitions have been identified (Brown et al., 2016): collective (e.g., wars), normative personal (e.g., childbirth), and non-normative personal (e.g., immigration). Experiment 1 tests participants’ subjective beliefs about certain personal transitions regarding prevalence, age norms, emotional valence, transitional impact, and importance. To compare the effects of aging and personal experience, we recruited both younger and older adults and divided them into two conditions. Participants in the experienced condition assessed a list of possible transitional events based on their own experiences, whereas those in the hypothetical condition assessed the same list through the imagined life of an average Canadian. A series of events were identified as major life transitions, including both expected and unforeseen events in an idealized life. In general, participants’ beliefs about the life transitions reflected their actual experiences. Compared with participants under the experienced condition, those in the hypothetical condition tended to consider events to be more important, impactful, and emotionally salient. We also found some age-related differences in the contents of major life transitions, except relocation, which was one acknowledged major transition across age groups. The second line of this dissertation is concerned with the characteristics and temporal distribution of word-cued autobiographical memories. We propose that transitional events, distinctive events, and mundane events are three subsets of autobiographical memory. Experiment 2 confirms the existence of non-transitional, self-irrelevant events. With a proper cue, participants could recall even more trivial events from the very recent past (e.g., two weeks ago). In this study, we asked undergraduates to explicitly provide their reasons for retention and quantitatively assess some properties of the word-cued events. Participants believed that they remembered the autobiographical events for various reasons (e.g., novelty, emotionality, rehearsal, and recency), and self-relevance was rarely the primary factor for memory consolidation and retention. Experiment 3 examines the organizational role of life transitions in autobiographical memories produced by middle-aged Chinese immigrants. During the think-aloud dating task, participants frequently made references to their major life transitions (e.g., immigration) when estimating the year for word-cued memories. We consider the bumps in the memory retrieval curve across the life span as a result of the “pile-up” of autobiographical memories around life transitions. Taken all together, these findings suggest that Transition Theory provides some comprehensive predictions on the mechanism of autobiographical memory.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
Shi,L. & Brown, N. R. (2016).The effect of immigration on the contents and organization of autobiographical memory: A transition-theory perspective. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5, 135–142.

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