Self and Experience

Posted by: Jeffrey Landine on August 11, 2011 12:00 pm

As we indicated in our last blog, we think that semantic memory is where occupational information is stored while episodic memory is where information about the self is stored.  This dichotomy represents the foundation of the Cognitive Information Processing (CIP) approach to career decision-making (Peterson, Sampson, Lenz & Reardon, 2002).  In this theory, episodic memory, defined as the memory of autobiographical events which include attributes such as time, place, people and associated emotions, is believed to be the recalled material from which we derive a sense of self.  All the little mental “movies” of our lives that we can recall (and some that we can’t recall) help to create a picture of self in our world.  As such, experience plays a key role in this aspect of memory.

When I was going to school in Alberta as a young 17-year-old, I remember hearing a series of lectures delivered by a psychologist from Washington State.  I can recall being enthralled by all that he had to say because for the first time in my academic life something I was learning made complete sense to me.  Of course these events coincided with an important period in the development of my identity but this experience in particular seemed to tie together a number of loose areas of self-awareness residing in my episodic memory.  His words about human development made all of my previous work as a summer camp counsellor make sense.  His insights into the difficulties people have with daily functioning rang true to my experiences in high school.  The combination of the feeling of “getting it” and the satisfaction that this experience brought caused me to think that I had finally found an area in which I could excel.  I began to identify my sense of who I was with the world of psychology.  The experience resulted in my seeing myself in a particular way and I would suggest it helped me develop self-concepts about what I was good at (understanding humans from this perspective) and what I valued (helping people to function in a healthy way).  Those self-concepts have persisted into adulthood and have helped to lead me in my present career direction.

Most theories of self-concept judgment assume that the individual has a database of experiences from which trait judgments can be made.  Episodic memory records events with conscious awareness that “this happened to me”.  We also believe that semantic memory enables people to retrieve general facts about their personal past in summary form. Although these summary representations are about the self and, we believe, have been abstracted from episodic memories of the self, the semantic facts about self do not preserve a record of the events from which they were derived. Klein, Sherman, and Loftus (1996) conducted an interesting study that asked first year college students to access memory to recall a specific incident or to decide if a presented trait described them, either at college or in the time they were living at home.  They found that when trait-relevant experience is low, self-knowledge regarding that trait is represented episodically because too few behaviors have been encountered to support the formation of semantic trait representations.  As trait-relevant behavioral experience increases, people no longer require behavioral episodes to make trait judgments about self.  We might draw the conclusion from this study that each new experience we have adds to our network of concepts and, with repetition, contributes to the overall organization of knowledge about self in memory.  Our next entry will look at the ways we believe concepts are created, organized and, ultimately, become useful in making career decisions. 

By: Jeff Landine and John Stewart


Klein, S. B., Sherman, J. W., & Loftus, J. (1996). The role of episodic and semantic memory in the development of trait self-knowledge. Social Cognition, 14(4), 277-291.

Peterson, G. W., Sampson, J. P. Jr., Lenz, J. G., & Reardon, R. C. (2002).  A cognitive information processing approach to career problem solving and decision-making.  In
D. Brown and Associates (Eds.), Career choice and development (4th ed.) (pp. 312-372). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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