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:
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:
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.