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The Consistency of Flashbulb Memories

Vivid memories following shocking experiences are not completely accurate.

Wikimedia Commons via Robert J. Fisch
Source: Wikimedia Commons via Robert J. Fisch

I remember as a kid that my parents shared vivid memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They could tell me where they were and who they were with when they found out the president had been shot.

In 1977, Roger Brown and James Kulik called memories like this flashbulb memories. They argued that important traumatic events are stored in a complete and vivid way that captures the context, the event, and the emotional reaction to it. The idea is that when something very dangerous or emotional happens, there may not be time in the moment to analyze exactly what happened. By storing a vivid memory of the situation, the individual can re-examine it later and learn from it to avoid potentially dangerous situations again in the future.

Since this influential paper was published, psychologists have wondered about the accuracy of these memories. Brown and Kulik looked at the characteristics of memories for past events. They looked in detail at the assassination of Martin Luther King, but also gathered data about other assassination attempts and personal unexpected shocks from the past.

People are highly confident about their flashbulb memories. They feel as though all of the details have been preserved. But, research on memory suggests that confidence is misleading. These studies did not allow the researchers to assess the accuracy of the memories.

Since then, whenever there are unexpected tragedies, psychologists have rushed to get statements from people about their immediate memories of the events and have tried to follow up with them later.

A fascinating example of this research was published in a paper in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by 17 authors who include a number of leading memory researchers. These researchers sent our memory surveys immediately after the airplane attacks on 9/11/01. They sent out follow-up surveys to participants after 1, 3, and 10 years. Although they have quite a bit of data from the first few surveys, only about 200 people filled out all 4 surveys.

Still, the results are quite interesting. All survey participants still had memories of how they found out about the event, who they were with, what they were doing, how they felt, the first person they talked to, and what they were doing before finding out about the attack. That means that all of the survey participants had memories that would qualify as a flashbulb memory. They were generally highly confident in the memory as well.

Despite their memory confidence, when the details of their memories were compared to the initial survey taken within 10 days of 9/11, there were significant inconsistencies. A year after the event, only about 2/3 of what people remembered was accurate. This accuracy did not dip much lower after that, and by 10 years after 9/11, people were still about 60% accurate.

Thus, although flashbulb memories are not like videos of the event, they are probably more accurate than memories for most events that took place 10 years before.

People also had a reasonably good memory for core events relating to 9/11 such as the number of planes involved and the crash sites. Their memories for more peripheral facts (like where Pres. Bush was during the attacks and the airlines of the planes used) were remembered less well. People often remembered these facts later if they were exposed to media reports and movies that featured this information.

One other interesting facet of these memories is that if someone added an incorrect detail into their memory for the event, that misinformation was likely to be repeated in later accounts rather than corrected. This suggests that one reason why flashbulb memories remain so vivid for people is that they are recalled over time. Extra information that emerges when someone recalls a memory can get incorporated into that memory later.

This study fits with a growing body of work suggesting that the experience of flashbulb memories is a real one. It happens both for public events that are shocking (like 9/11) as well as personal events. Although the memories are highly vivid (which leads to a sense of confidence that the memory is accurate), there are significant inconsistencies in most people’s memories.

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