Individual Differences In Memory

Some people remember more from when they were little (under age five) than others. Some people can't remember anything from that early! People who share certain memories may remember events very differently. A child's memory of a favourite birthday party may be very different from the parents, for example. There are so many individual differences in memory!

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Table of contents
    • What are some examples of types of memories?
    • How does the dual processing theory of mind explain individual differences in working memory capacity?
    • What is one example of individual differences in working memory and reading?
    • How do individual differences affect the accuracy of eyewitness memories?
    • What is one example of individual differences in colour memory?

    Individual Differences in Episodic Memory Ability

    Memory processes involve encoding, storing, and retrieving past events and knowledge. Research has found individual differences in memory that can impact memory processes. These include:

    • Trauma.
    • Age.
    • Brain activity.
    • Schemas.
    • Processing speed.

    The processing speed of memories varies due to individual differences, such as:

    • Age: as people age, the speed of memory processing slows down.
    • Diseases such as dementia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can affect memory processing speed.

    Individual differences in memory Drawing of the brain StudySmarterFig. 1 Individual differences in memory

    There are different types of memories. Individual experiences shape some of these memories, examples of which are episodic and autobiographical memories.

    Episodic memory is a form of long-term memory in which you remember details of experiences. These details may include information about the place, time, and emotions felt.

    Autobiographical memory involves recollections of several personal past events in one's life. It is usually a combination of semantic knowledge (information about the world) and a series of episodic memories.

    An example of this type of memory is remembering the events that occurred when you went on holiday with friends (episodic memories) and other details such as the name of the hotel you stayed in (semantic knowledge).

    Some people have hyperthymesia. These are people who are strikingly good at remembering and recalling autobiographical memories. A woman named A. J. could remember every day of her life since she was fourteen years old. We're not very knowledgeable about the cause of this phenomenon. However, this shows the importance of studying individual differences in memory.

    Regarding episodic memories, individual differences exist in the ability to form and retrieve them. Kirchhoff (2009)1 suggested the individual differences responsible for this are as follows:

    Individual Difference in MemoryDescription
    Differences in brain activity During encoding and retrieval of episodic memories, research has found a positive correlation between activity in the prefrontal cortex and memory performance. This finding was evident when people recalled stimuli by using an effective strategy.
    Differences in encoding strategies Some strategies used to remember information are more effective than others for remembering things.
    Brain lesions Individuals with brain damage may have difficulty recalling or retrieving memories.
    Memory disordersMemory disorders can cause people not to create or recall episodic memories.

    Fig. 2 Individual differences in episodic memory ability

    People with anterograde amnesia cannot form new memories, and people with retrograde amnesia are unable to recall/remember old memories.

    Herlitz et al. (1997)2 found women performed better than men on episodic memory tasks. There were no gender differences on tests of semantic memory. In general, however, there do not appear to be gender differences in memory.

    Individual Differences in Working Memory Capacity and Dual-Process Theories of the Mind

    Earlier, we've mentioned two types of memory, episodic and autobiographical memory, which consist primarily of experiences and details of past events. Another important type of memory, a term often used in psychology, is our working memory.

    Working memory is the readily accessible information stored in our mind for cognitive processes such as problem-solving, reasoning, and perception.

    Working memory helps students pay attention during lessons while trying to understand the concepts.

    Individual differences in working memory are differences in people's ability to direct their attention. Attention control is part of the central executive component of the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974)3. In addition to how the brain processes, encodes, and stores stimuli directed to the other model components.

    These individual differences in working memory reflect differences in accomplishing cognitive tasks such as:

    • A directed search of the necessary information in situations with active interruptions or distractions. Those with high working memory capacity showed faster and more accurate retrieval of information than those with low working memory capacity.
    • Ongoing activation of information in mind and the ability to resist distraction. Those with high working memory capacity (WMC) showed greater resistance to distraction on different memory tasks than those with low working memory capacity.
    • Keeping out information irrelevant to a specific goal or task. In testing fluency of memory retrieval from different categories (category fluency task), those with low working memory capacity committed more repetitions of category items. They were less able to pay attention to their responses than those with high working memory capacity.
    In addition, the dual-process theory of the mind also explains individual differences in our working memory capacity.

    The dual-process theory of the mind assumes there are two ways in which thoughts can arise:

    1. Automatic – this system is unconscious and useful in instantaneous thinking.
    2. Controlled – this system is intentional and applies when a person must make a conscious effort to think. This system is useful when people make rational, calculated thoughts.

    People with lower working memory capacity rely on the automatic system. On the other hand, people with higher working memory capacity use the controlled system. When there are additional tasks (increase in information load), people with higher working memory capacity are more impaired than people with lower capacity. Working memory capacity can affect processing ability and performance on specific tasks.

    Individual Differences in Working Memory and Reading

    We understand that memory is a form of cognition necessary for other cognitive abilities to work efficiently. These cognitive abilities influenced by memory include reading, listening, and attention skills. Individual differences in memory can also impact different types of memory.

    Some people better remember semantic memory, while others are better at recalling autobiographical memories.

    Daneman and Carpenter (1980) found that performance on reading comprehension tasks may result from differences in working memory capacity. The study found that people with poor reading comprehension may need to limit the amount of information they store in their working memory. People with good reading skills were more effective at chunking. This study shows that working memory capacity and processing influence reading comprehension ability.

    Chunking is the ability to group individual 'chunks' of information. In this way, memory capacity can increase.

    Another notable difference in working memory and reading between individuals is the ability to make sense of a word in a sentence with multiple meanings. In this sentence, “I saw a bat,” one might think of baseball equipment or an animal.

    Miyake et al. (1994) suggested that high-span readers (large working memory) can hold multiple meanings in their thoughts. This process allows them to select the correct meaning aligned to the context when the researchers provided the context (e.g., I saw a bat fly out of the cave). In low-span readers (small working memory), reading times were slower when the context pointed to the less typical meaning of the word.

    Individual Differences in Accuracy of Eyewitness Memory

    The Yerkes-Dodson law explains why there are individual differences in the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. The theory is that the amount of fear one feels as a witness to a crime affects one's recollection of the events:

    • Low and high anxiety levels – memory accuracy is minimal.
    • Moderate levels of anxiety are the optimal level where memory is most accurate.

    Memory loss after a traumatic event can occur due to physical trauma. However, some people forget memories of an event because they repressed the memory.

    According to psychodynamic psychologists, one defence mechanism is to repress memories. This defence mechanism aims to prevent negative effects, such as panic attacks, that may occur when there's a recollection of a traumatic event. Therefore, the accuracy of eyewitness testimony may depend on how distressed someone is during an event or whether they have experienced a similar negative event.

    There are also links to sex differences that affect the accuracy of eyewitness memory. Studies suggest that females can recognise and remember other people's facial features better than males. But males perform better in remembering details about the event, including the surroundings, as they tend to observe the environment more than females. Additionally, how men and women think about crime reflects individual differences in their cognitive schema, which can also impact the accuracy of eyewitness memory.

    Schemas are a cognitive function organising knowledge and memories in long-term memory. They are categories of information we use to understand the world.

    Because we all have different life experiences, our schemas are different, influencing how we remember things. Our memories undergo reconstruction to fit our schema.

    Individual Differences in Memory, a painting of a cafe, StudySmarterFig. 3 Memory reconstruction to fit a schema

    You visit France and sit in a café for breakfast. You see local French people ordering non-culture-specific things like toast with eggs. However, based on your schema of French food, you remember the French-ordered croissants when you recall this memory later.

    Individual Differences in Colour Memory

    Research has shown that people are more likely to pay attention to coloured objects. Attention to information is vital in the process of encoding and storing memories.

    The colour of memory is the colour of an object that someone sees based on their experiences.

    If you ask people what colour a banana is, the answer is almost always yellow. However, some people may have noticed that there are also red bananas.

    Rindermann et al. (2020) found that blind and visually impaired children have higher working memory capacity than non-visually impaired children. This finding suggests the brain can compensate for deficits due to visual impairments. Thus, perceiving colours does not necessarily lead to an improvement in memory.

    There is also an association with individual differences in working memory and accurately remembering a specific colour, even with changes in lighting conditions (colour constancy). One research showed that those with high working memory performed better in recalling the same colour under a different illumination than those with low working memory. But there were no differences in colour recollection if viewed under the same lighting conditions.

    Individual Differences In Memory - Key takeaways

    • Examples of different types of memories include episodic, autobiographical and working memory.
    • The dual-process theory of the mind states that there are two systems that people rely on in accomplishing cognitive tasks: automatic (instantaneous thoughts) and controlled systems (effortful and rational thoughts). Individuals with high working memory capacity use the controlled system, while those with lower working memory capacity use the automatic system.
    • Individual differences in working memory capacity can also affect reading comprehension, where those with low working memory capacity may experience more difficulty storing information. On the other hand, chunking (grouping information into chunks) helps increase memory capacity.
    • The Yerkes-Dodson law explains that the amount of fear one feels as a witness to a crime affects one's recollection of the events.
    • Individual differences in colour memory show that even among the visually impaired, the brain can compensate for the deficits and better performance in colour constancy under a particular illumination among individuals with high working memory.


    1. B. A. Kirchhoff, Individual differences in episodic memory: the role of self-initiated encoding strategies, The Neuroscientist, Volume 15 (2009), pp 166-79
    2. A. Herlitz, L. G. Nilsson & L. Bäckman, Gender differences in episodic memory, Memory & Cognition, Volume 25 (1997), pp 801-11
    3. A. Baddeley & G. Hitch, Working memory, Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 8 (1974), pp 47-89
    Frequently Asked Questions about Individual Differences In Memory

    What is individual differences in working memory?

    Individual differences in working memory are differences between people’s abilities to control attention directed to the central executive component of the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). In addition to how the brain processes, encodes, and stores stimuli directed to the other model components. 

    What are individual differences in learning?

    Individual differences in learning are differences in how people learn new information. An example of this is in chunking or grouping further information. Those who are effective at chunking information have increased memory capacity. Another example is differences in attention control which may result in differences in working memory capacity. Individuals with higher working memory capacity can process information more effectively, even in highly distracting situations.

    Do people have different kinds of memory?

    People have the same kinds of memory; however, how a person utilises those memories or the amount of information stored may be affected by biological conditions such as age, memory disorders, or sensory impairments. For example, a person with brain lesions or memory disorders may have difficulty retrieving and remembering information. Some memories, such as episodic and autobiographical nature, are based on individual differences, so they vary from person to person. 

    What is meant by individual difference?

    Individual differences are differences between people’s psychological, physiological and biological nature due to multiple factors such as age, trauma, schemas, and cognitive abilities.

    What are examples of individual differences?

    Examples of individual differences in memory include differences in cognitive schemas, which reconstruct our memories to fit these schemas, differences in brain activity and encoding strategies reflecting memory performance and differences in anxiety levels affecting recollection of events.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    People with _________ amnesia are unable to recall/remember old memories.

     True or false. In the accuracy of eyewitness memory, men can remember facial features more than women.

    True or false. In the accuracy of eyewitness memory, women can remember the surrounding event in more detail than men.


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