Cognitive Daily

September 11. The Challenger disaster. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. If we were over the age of 10 when these events occurred, we all remember them vividly: where we were when we heard the news, the weather that day, how we felt. It’s as if these memories were imprinted on our minds with a flashbulb. Or is it?

In 1977, Roger Brown and James Kulik published a paper in Cognition entitled “Flashbulb Memories,” describing their research on individuals’ memories of the Kennedy assassination. Participants reported having especially clear memories of the day it occurred, recalling with impressive accuracy seemingly trivial details. Later research appeared to confirm Brown and Kulik’s conclusions: “flashbulb memory” is more detailed and accurate than memories of ordinary daily events. But all these studies had problems. Brown and Kulik questioned observers years after the “flashbulb” event occurred, and assumed their recollections were accurate. Other studies didn’t question participants for several weeks after the flashbulb memory, or compared it to an ordinary memory occuring at a different time in the participant’s life.

September 11, 2001 gave Duke researchers Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin a unique opportunity to conduct a more thorough investigation of flashbulb memory (“Confidence, not Consistency, Characterizes Flashbulb Memories,” Psychological Science, 2003). On September 12 they gave 52 student volunteers a questionnaire about their memory of September 11 and an ordinary event of their choosing from the preceding few days. They then divided the volunteers into three groups, and had each group return for a follow-up questionnaire session after a different amount of time had elapsed: 7 days, 42 days, and 224 days. In the follow-up session they were asked the same questions about their memories about both the ordinary event (typically this was something like a party or a sporting event) and the flashbulb memory.

Talarico and Rubin then analyzed the responses to see if September 11 was remembered better than an ordinary event. Here are the results:

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The number of details remembered about September 11 and the everyday event were statistically indistinguishable. Most memories were consistent, and over time, the number of consistent details participants were able to recall did decline, but there was no difference in the decline for ordinary memories and for memories of September 11. The number of inconsistent details (e.g. “I was with Fred” changing to “I was with Mary”) increased similarly for both ordinary events and September 11. What was different was the confidence and vividness of the memories:

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Participants were more likely to believe their memories of September 11 were accurate than their ordinary memories, and they reported those memories as being equally vivid, even months after the event. Meanwhile, they reported the ordinary memories becoming less and less vivid and reliable, even though objectively they could remember no more details about September 11.

So it appears that the flaw in Brown and Kulik’s research was the fact that they believed their participants’ reports that flashbulb memories are more accurate than ordinary memories. When the accuracy of memories is checked, it turns out that flashbulb memories are no different from other memories.

Comments

  1. [...]

    Cognitive Daily — Is memory better for shocking events?

    Cognitive Daily blogs today about David Rubin’s 2003 paper on flashbulb memory on Spet 11th. [...]

  2. #2 Animus Machina
    April 19, 2005

    Two interesting articles

    Coanda-Soliton Phenomena: Yah, the site has a little bit of a “whack-job” aura about it, but it’s still got some pretty interesting points on it. If what they guy says is true, then we could be missing a whole different kind of population. Of course…

  3. [...] ial questionnaire was administered on September 12! (If you haven’t read our post on Talarico and Rubin’s study, you might want to do so now. Their basic finding is that we believe memory for [...]

  4. #4 Slim Cognito
    October 20, 2005

    I am actually doing extensive research into flashbulb memories, and this is the first time i have heard of results like this. Personally I have no recollection of Sep 10th, Zippo! But still remember details of where I was what time and how I found out about it. How about you?

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 20, 2005

    Slim, that’s the point of the study. We think we have more accurate memories of flashbulb events, but before this study, no one ever bothered to check whether the memories are actually true. At least according to this data, despite our confidence in the memories, they are no more likely to be accurate than any other memories we have.

    I do think the fact that participants rehearsed their pre-september 11 memories by filling out the questionnaire on the 12th may have skewed the results, but it’s still interesting to note that they were still more confident about the 9/11 memories, even when they weren’t more accurate.

  6. #6 Jonski
    November 12, 2005

    I am currently taking Psychology as an A-Levl, and we are looking into Flashbulb memories, i have not come across results like that of Talarico and Rubin (2001), so this website has provided an excellent resource for imformation.

    However, i am curious if there are any statistics available for ‘Race Effect’, as found in Brown and Kulik’s study (1977), for Talarico and Rubin (2001. Can anyone help?

  7. #7 Ormond Otvos
    April 30, 2006

    Isn’t this what Eric Kandel’s new book is about: the actual mechanism of transfer from short term memory’s increase in synaptic cleft connexions, to the activation of the genes in the neuronal body to produce more permanent prion-tipped self-replicating proteins?

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 30, 2006

    Ormond:

    I haven’t read Kandel’s book, but based on the Amazon reviews, it looks to me to be a little more general than this article, and a bit more neurologically based. Your comment, too, implies a neurological explanation of the phenomenon that is not present in the article.

    Also, a distinction needs to be made between significant events that impact us directly, and events that we hear about from afar. 9/11 was shocking for all of us, but people who were in the Pentagon or the WTC had a very different experience than those of us who merely watched on TV. This study is about the latter group, not the former.

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