Lind SE, Williams DM, Nicholson T, Grainger C & Carruthers P (2019) The self-reference effect on memory is not diminished in autism: Three studies of incidental and explicit self-referential recognition memory in autistic and neurotypical adults and adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/abn0000467
Three experiments investigated the extent to which a) individuals with autism show a self-reference effect (i.e., better memory for self-relevant information), and b) the size of the self-reference effect is associated with autism traits. Participants studied trait adjectives in relation to their own name (self-referent) or a celebrity’s name (other-referent) under explicit and incidental/implicit encoding conditions. Explicit encoding involved judging whether the adjectives applied to self or other (denoted by proper names). Implicit encoding involved judging whether the adjectives were presented to the right or left of one’s own or a celebrity’s name. Recognition memory for the adjectives was tested using a yes/no procedure. Experiment 1 (individual differences; N = 257 neurotypical adults) employed the Autism-spectrum Quotient as a measure of autistic traits. Experiments 2 (N = 60) and 3 (N = 52) involved case-control designs with closely-matched groups of autistic and neurotypical adults and children/adolescents, respectively. Autistic traits were measured using the Autism-spectrum Quotient and Social Responsiveness Scale, respectively. In all experiments, a significant self-reference effect was observed in both explicit and implicit encoding conditions. Most importantly, however, there was (a) no significant relation between size of the self-reference effect and number of autistic traits (Experiments 1, 2 and 3), and (b) no significant difference in the size of the self-reference effect between autistic and neurotypical participants (Experiments 2 and 3). In these respects, Bayesian analyses consistently suggested that the data supported the null hypothesis. These results challenge the notion that subjective or objective self-awareness are impaired in autism. It is generally easier to remember information that is relevant to oneself than to remember other kinds of information. This is known as the “self-reference effect”. Previously, it has been claimed that people with autism show a reduced self-reference effect (implying diminished self-awareness) but this study provides robust evidence that people with autism are, in fact, just as susceptible to this effect as neurotypical people.
autism spectrum disorder; recognition memory; self-awareness; self-bias; self-reference effect
Output Status: Forthcoming/Available Online
Journal of Abnormal Psychology