The elusive self: A meta-analytic review of the self-reference effect literature

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Blair Johnson



Subject Categories



The self-reference effect (SRE) refers to the superior recall that subjects exhibit when they relate stimulus items to themselves in an encoding task, compared to recall obtained with semantic or other-referent encoding (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). Numerous research efforts have replicated the SRE under various conditions (e.g., Kendzierski, 1980; Klein & Kihlstrom, 1986), however, many other studies have failed to obtain an SRE, or have demonstrated conditions under which it can be reversed. Because of the seeming elusiveness with which self-referent encoding enhances recall, several researchers have concluded that the self is not a special memory structure that facilitates recall of stimulus words. In order to test this view, I performed a quantitative review to determine the magnitude of the average effect size obtained when self-referent encoding is compared to semantic and to other-referent encoding, and to determine the circumstances under which this effect size varies. A thorough search of the literature using computerized data bases, secondary searches and personal correspondence resulted in a sample of 127 studies that manipulated either self-reference versus other-reference, or self-reference versus semantic processing. For each study, an effect size was calculated corresponding to the memory difference between the encoding tasks that were manipulated. Each study was also coded for SRE study characteristics that were hypothesized to have important theoretical or descriptive significance. Results revealed an overall SRE. Moreover, studies that manipulated self- versus other-reference obtained significantly smaller SREs on the average than studies that manipulated self-reference versus semantic encoding. Important moderators of the SRE were investigated to explain within-class variation in study outcomes within the two manipulation classes. Results of these analyses suggest one set of findings that supports the contention that self-reference involves ordinary memory processes, and a second set of findings that suggests that self, other and semantic representations may involve distinct processes. Theoretical explanations and debates in the literature about the causes of the SRE are also discussed.