Autobiographical Memory and Well-Being

A Tale of Two Mechanisms


Self-reflection, i.e. reviewing past personal memories, has demonstrable well-being benefits. However there are two possible mechanisms that might explain this, revisiting past events or simply recording them. We compared these two mechanisms in a month long field study using a mobile smartphone application, “Echo.” A Recording group (17 participants) recorded at least three events each day. A Reflecting group (16 participants) made three recordings but also reflected on three previous recordings each day allowing us to measure additional benefits of reflection. Two matched control groups either recorded three neutral non-autobiographical descriptions each day, or did nothing to remove Hawthorne effects. Recording and Reflecting groups increased well-being scores following the intervention, but there were no additional benefits of Reflecting over Recording, and these equivalent benefits were maintained four months after the intervention. Content analysis of people’s records suggests different mechanisms for Recording and Reflection: Recorders who focused on relationships showed greater well-being increases, whereas Reflecters focusing on goals and actions benefited most. Our findings have practical therapeutic implications; events can be written about and processed as they are happening, without needing to revisit painful experiences. Furthermore computational tools seem a promising practical way to support this.

Sarmac 2013