Make It About YOU: Learning with the Self-Reference Effect

By Marissa Wurster & Daniel Ilagan

You know how you’re mom told you while you were growing up to stop being selfish and stop making things all about you? Well we’re here to tell you to forget that! In terms of improving memory and encoding items, relating things back to yourself can actually be really helpful! Students spend hours every single day trying to comprehend new material, but often times they waste that time because they fail to relate the material to themselves. Evaluating incoming information relative to the contents of one’s self schema can lead to enhanced elaboration and organization of the newly learned material (1).

Before we get into how and why the self-reference produces positive results, it’s important to have a basic understanding of  how things are processed in the brain. The levels of processing theory, proposed by Craik and Lockhart in 1972, describes how memory depends on the depth of processing in which an item is encoded, or turned into a long-term memory (2). Shallow processing involves little attention to meaning while deep processing involves just the opposite. Using the self-reference effect (SRE) is a form of deep processing and elaborative rehearsal (2). See the figure below for a better understanding of the levels of processing.

The self-reference effect was developed by T.B. Rogers and coworkers in 1977 as a means of improving memory by encoding. Using a similar model as Craik and Lockhart, Rogers’s design revolved around subjects reading a question, being presented with a word and then being asked a question with a “yes” or “no” response. Questions varied based on physical characteristics, rhyming, meaning, and self-reference dimensions of the word (something that describes them) (3). The results of the experiment show that subjects were better able to remember self-referenced words when asked to recall them compared to the other categories (4).

A few years later, Klein & Kihlstrom reproduced this study with similar categories. Specifically, they focused on structural, semantic and self-reference categories (5). The results were clear that using the self-reference effect significantly improved their recall.

CAUTION! While the results of Klein’s study offer promising advancements in improving memory, the self-reference effect in itself can be circular in its reasoning. While people may have better memory if they process things more deeply, this DOES NOT mean that if you process things more deeply, you will automatically have an improved memory. So bottom line, don’t assume that this using the SRE will guarantee better recall and recognition, it may just have aiding effects (4). 

How can I actually use the SRE while studying??

You might be wondering how you can actually use this theory to improve your memory, and therefore your learning abilities in college. Here are some strategies to help you out!

  • Make your own table of self-referenced concepts
Concept What it means Self-reference
Bottom-up processing Perception starts with sensory information (visual, touch, or audio information) I can perceive that someone is poking my arm after I sense the pressure on my skin.
Top-down processing Perception starts with the brain (knowledge, previous experience or expectations) When the radio is static, I can still make out the words of my favorite song.
  • Make up short stories about certain pathways with YOU as the main character!

Process of transferring incoming information to long-term memory:

I recently moved to a new city that rains all the time from a very dry and desert-like town (input). Everyday I see and feel the rain hit me (sensory memory) and decide that I should take out my umbrella (short-term memory). Once I realize that I have forgotten it, I repeatedly tell myself to bring it the next day so I don’t end up soaking wet again (rehearsal). The more I can relate the benefits of bringing my umbrella with me to myself and how it could improve my day, then the more likely the reminder to bring it will be remembered tomorrow (long-term memory via the self-reference effect)

  • Do more than just rereading your notes!

While using maintenance rehearsal holds basic info in your short term memory for longer, using elaborative rehearsal will transfer this short term memory to long-term (4). For example, when learning about Parkinson’s Disease, instead of regurgitating information from your textbook over to your notes, try relating it to someone you may know that has Parkinson’s. Try linking the symptoms you have learned about to that person to help better encode that information into your long term memory.

Self-Reference Effect and the BRAIN!!

Ever wonder what relating things to your own self looks like in the brain?! Conveniently enough, a study was conducted by Yaoi and colleagues to find the neural correlates of the self-reference effect. In their experiment, two separate tasks were completed under the surveillance of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)(6).  In the first experiment involving self-referential vs. other-referential judgments, participants showed greater activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in the self-referential judgment condition. This area is also recognized as a self-related region of the brain. In the self vs. other-referenced recognition task, similar increases in activation of the VMPFC was seen in the self-referenced condition, in addition to that of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the bilateral angular gyrus (AG) Both of these areas are seen to play a role in memory (6)Overall, not only does using semantic meaning and relating things to yourself increase your brain activity, but it significantly improves recognition and recall compared to that of those in the other-referenced condition!

So next time when you show your mom those final grades, you can explain to her why it’s okay to be self-centered sometimes.


  1. Leshikar, E. D., Dulas, M. R., & Duarte, A. (2014). Self-referencing enhances recollection in both young and older adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 22(4), 388-412.
  2. Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671-684.
  3. Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677-688.
  4. Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive psychology connecting mind, research, and everyday experience. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  5. Klein, S. B., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1986). Elaboration, organization, and the self-reference effect in memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115(1), 26-38.
  6. Yaoi, K., Osaka, M., & Osaka, N. (2015). Neural correlates of the self-reference effect: evidence from evaluation and recognition processes. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9.

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