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The Concept of Autobiographical Memory Essay

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Updated: Jan 16th, 2020

Article Summary

Considering that relationships form the core of human needs, it is obvious that interpersonal relationships influence people’s psychological functioning, mental health, and wellbeing. For example, individuals experiencing attachment security are known to possess high levels of self-esteem and excellent adaptive or coping strategies.

On the other hand, individuals experiencing attachment anxiety and/or avoidance have been found to suffer from psychopathology and emotional distress (Sutin & Gillath, 2009, p. 351).

Therefore, many studies demonstrate the relationship between various attachment styles and the subsequent psychological distress, particularly depression. However, to demonstrate this link, many researchers have had to rely on the way people predetermine, store, recover, and use different memories in their interpersonal relationships.

Accordingly, Sutin and Gillath (2009) deviated from the previous studies by proposing that some measurable aspects of the autobiographical memory determine the relationship between attachment styles and psychological distress. The proposed components of the autobiographical memory measured by these researchers include the phenomenological experience and the emotional content of the memory.

In their study, Sutin and Gillath (2009) tested the two components of the autobiographical memory in two separate studies.

In the first study, 454 participants took part in a two-session survey whereby in the first session, the participants’ experiences were evaluated relative to different measures such as self-defining relationship memories, phenomenology, adult attachment, and depressive symptoms while in the second session, the participants were asked to retrieve and rate their self-defining relationship memory experiences regarding romantic interactions.

In the second study, 534 participants were introduced to one of the three priming conditions; attachment security (195 participants), attachment insecurity (157 participants), and the control condition (182 participants). After priming, the participants retrieved and rated their experiences regarding a self-defining memory (Sutin & Gillath, 2009, pp. 353-358).

The research findings show that memory phenomenology (memory coherence and emotional intensity) determined the relationship between attachment avoidance and depression, while the negative affective content of the autobiographical memory determined the link between attachment anxiety and depression (Sutin & Gillath, 2009, p. 355).

On the other hand, priming the participants with attachment security made them to show more coherent relationship memories, while attachment insecurity made the participants to show more incoherent relationship memories.


The concept of autobiographical memory has been shown to mediate the association between different attachment styles and psychological distress. In fact, different aspects of autobiographical memory seem to be the product of a reconstructive process that underlies an individual’s emotional and motivational functioning.

Here, various aspects of autobiographical memory play a major role in constructing and maintaining an individual’s self-identity and promoting the development of intimacy. However, these memories are not always related to positive human functions.

In some cases, the retrieval style for the autobiographical memories is susceptible to various depressive symptoms in that various intrusive memories can promote psychological distress, particularly the post-traumatic stress disorder (Sutin & Gillath, 2009, p. 352). As a result, autobiographical memories can determine the path to depression vulnerability and psychological distress.

According to Sutin and Gillath (2009), two major aspects of autobiographical memory, that is, phenomenology and content, demonstrated a consistent relationship with psychological distress. Therefore, there is evidence to suggest that the two aspects mediate attachment avoidance and anxiety.

For instance, memory coherence and emotional intensity, which are related to phenomenology, play an important role in terms of mediating distress for avoidance as opposed to anxiety. On the other hand, memory incoherence is closely associated with attachment avoidance.

As opposed to avoidance, attachment anxiety is closely related to the memory’s emotional content. Overall, this study provides provocative evidence to suggest that there is a link between attachment styles and autobiographical memory, which in turn mediates psychological distress.


Sutin, A. R., & Gillath, O. (2009). Autobiographical memory phenomenology and content mediate attachment style and psychological distress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56(3), 351-364. Web.

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