The term person memory came into common usage around 1980 in conjunction with the advent of the contemporary field of social cognition, with the two labels sometimes used interchangeably. As described by Reid Hastie and colleagues in their 1980 book, person memory is an attempt to “extend accounts of the formation, representation, and retrieval of first impressions of other people” (p. 1) by borrowing extensively from the field of cognitive psychology. From the beginning these extensions have relied heavily on cognitive concepts such as the information processing model, schemas, and associative network models of memory representation and retrieval.
The information processing model distinguishes stages of attention, perception, memory storage, retrieval, and judgment. Prior to 1980 researchers in social psychology had developed an extensive literature on person perception and attribution, which focused primarily on the earliest of these stages, the formation of impressions, without much regard for issues relating to memory representation or retrieval. Consequently, the term person memory came to apply principally to post-1980s work that extended impression formation work to the later stages of information processing.
The earliest research in person memory demonstrated that people’s impressions of others comprise separate trait and episodic representations, and that these affect each other in complex ways. For example, researchers suggested that inferred traits serve to organize behavioral episodic representations, and that this actually facilitates recall for behavioral information. Subsequent research examined the effects of a variety of processing goals on the way that impressions and memories are organized and retrieved from memory.
Other person memory work examined an implication of schema theory, that people ought best to recall behavioral episodes that are congruent with their trait impressions. Person memory researchers actually found the opposite, with recall being best for episodes that contradicted prior trait impressions. Applying associative network models popular in that era, theorists suggested that as perceivers attempt to reconcile incongruent evidence with their trait impressions, they create a rich network of interconnections among these episodic memories, facilitating their ultimate retrieval. Of course, as the amount of incongruent information increases, it becomes more likely that perceivers will eventually abandon their initial trait impression. However, research indicates that first impressions tend to have persisting effects even in the face of substantial contradictory evidence.
Later work in person memory suggested that because of the incongruity effect and other such memory processes, people’s memories of their trait impressions will not always correspond exactly with their memories for relevant facts and events. In fact, such correspondence is to be expected primarily when people actually base their trait impression on recalled facts and events, which is most likely when they failed to form an impression as those facts and events were initially encountered. Contemporary research on social cognition continues to examine issues surrounding the way that impressions are represented in memory, with some additional interest in the spontaneity of impression formation and the degree of conscious awareness that people have of their impressions.
Hastie, Reid, et al., eds. 1980. Person Memory: The Cognitive Basis of Social Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Donal E. Carlston