Direct and generative autobiographical memory retrieval: how different are they?

Celia B. Harris*, Dorthe Berntsen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    14 Citations (Scopus)


    Theories of autobiographical memory have emphasised effortful generative retrieval, but recent research indicates that subjectively effortless direct retrieval is common. We compared the processes of direct and generative retrieval. Sixty-five participants retrieved 24 autobiographical memories across three cue types: concrete, emotional, and personal. We recorded retrieval latency, and participants judged direct versus generative retrieval and rated memory specificity, vividness, significance, rehearsal, and emotionality. Overall, direct retrieval was common, especially for personal cues. Directly retrieved memories were recalled faster, were less likely to be specific, and were rated more significant, rehearsed, and emotional than generatively retrieved memories. The speed of both direct and generative retrieval varied similarly according to cue type, suggesting they did not involve fundamentally different cognitive processes. These findings challenge theories that assume direct retrieval bypasses constructive processes. Instead we suggest that both direct and generative retrieval involve construction that is similarly affected by cue concreteness and relevance.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number102793
    Pages (from-to)1-10
    Number of pages10
    JournalConsciousness and cognition
    Publication statusPublished - Sep 2019


    • autobiographical memory
    • retrieval processes
    • direct retrieval
    • memory qualities
    • involuntary autobiographical memories


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