UNH researchers discuss new psychology study

By Tom Spencer
On March 4, 2014

Recent research from the University of New Hampshire has caused quite the stir, with the headline of a press release asserting that most people have made their best memories by the age of 25.

To some people, the notion seems impossible. 

"[My] immediate reaction would be there is no way that is possible, there is too much life to live after that," Ricky Bailey, a freshman bioengineering major, said. "Besides, I plan on seeing my child's face for the first time after 25 ... being an extremely fond memory."

The researchers felt that the headline misrepresented their work.

"[Which memories are best] isn't actually a question we asked in this study," Kristina Steiner, a doctoral student in psychology at UNH and the study's lead researcher, said. 

"The headline is a little misleading," David Pillemer, the Dr. Samuel E. Paul professor of developmental psychology at UNH, said. "We asked people to divide their life up into chapters based on events ... [the start and end of chapters] were what was so clustered around [college ages]."

In other words, ages 17 to 25 are where the researchers saw many major life transitions.

"This was true for all types of chapters: positive, negative, expected and unexpected," Steiner said. 

Previous researchers had found that many important memories were gathered between the ages of 15 and 30. This study wanted to know why that was true. The answer may lie in what factors make a memory stick. 

Pillemer listed "emotion, significance and rehearsal" as three components that make memories last. Stories from ages 17 to 25 are often about major emotional or physical transitions, which then become "rehearsed," in retellings to friends and family.

"These transitions included things like: graduation, military service, marriage, children, first jobs, et cetera," Steiner said. 

"That seems to just confirm what people knew anyway," Julie Clancy, a sophomore psychology major, said. "But it is important to do so with actual research."

But just because a life chapter starts in these years does not mean the fun ends at 25. For example, the first day of a job may mark a chapter's beginning, but the following experience could last for decades. 

People are not off schedule if their life is not settled by age 25. There are other factors at work. 

Generational differences may mean this study will not reflect contemporary experiences.  

"People are getting married and having children later," Steiner said. "It is hard to find a job during the Great Recession, so people are starting their careers and buying their first homes later. This particular generation might have [more transitions] later in the lifespan."

Another potentially misleading factor may be the source of the life stories gathered for the research. The stories were sampled from an entirely Caucasian pool, 76 percent of which had received an undergraduate degree or more. 

Edward Piscopo, a non-traditional UNH student and "probably the oldest freshman on campus," did not find this study to reflect his own experiences, but he could see why the results would make sense. "Most people get settled into a socio-economic bracket, and tend to stay put where their family is." 

The study does not reflect the experiences of Craig Harriman, a non-traditional student at UNH.

"At 39, I continue to have better memories everyday, they are just a bit different than those of my youth. That may be true for most people ... by 25 you're settling ... I just never stopped making those changes," Harriman said. "Never will."

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