Automatic prioritization of self-referential stimuli in working memory

Shouhang Yin, Jie Sui, Yu-Chin Chiu, Antao Chen, Tobias Egner

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People preferentially attend to external stimuli that are related to themselves compared with others. Whether a similar self-reference bias applies to internal representations, such as those maintained in working memory (WM), is presently unknown. We tested this possibility in four experiments, in which participants were first trained to associate social labels (self, friend, stranger) with arbitrary colors and then performed a delayed match-to-sample spatial WM task on color locations. Participants consistently responded fastest to WM probes at locations of self-associated colors (Experiments 1–4). This self-bias was driven not by differential exogenous attention during encoding or retrieval (Experiments 1 and 2) but by internal attentional prioritization of self-related representations during WM maintenance (Experiment 3). Moreover, self-prioritization in WM was nonstrategic, as this bias persisted even under conditions in which it hurt WM performance. These findings document an automatic prioritization of self-referential items in WM, which may form the basis of some egocentric biases in decision making.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-423
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number3
Early online date17 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • internal attention
  • open data
  • open materials
  • self-bias
  • self-prioritization effect
  • self-reference
  • working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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