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My False Autobiography

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Memory, like many functions of the human body, is not something that we often take time to appreciate. In fact, it can be said that we take the ability to remember for granted. I mean, just think about it! How cool is it that we are able to recall past events such as a dance recital from our youth, or how to play a game of chess, for example? While remembering has its advantages, so does forgetting, but how might our memories be influenced by incorrect recollections?

Our memory system is not flawless, and in fact is susceptible to a number of errors. It is the case that memories sometimes deceive us in ways we are not even aware. Distortions often occur as a result of forgetting details over time, or the interference of routine events such as attending school or work every day. Additionally, our beliefs and expectations of the world around us shape in some way our memories of the past. Another way to state this is: as our perceptions of the world are constantly changing, so are our memories. We reconstruct events based on current beliefs and input received from outside sources (Schacter, 2001).

A flashbulb memory can be defined as the recollection of an unexpected, emotionally poignant event. Events that may lead to a flashbulb memory include: childhood abuse, divorce, winning the lottery, landing your dream job, or events such as 9/11. People are often under the impression that they remember the details quite well, which is due to the vivid and emotional nature of flashbulb memories. Consider that when reading an autobiography, our initial response is not to doubt what is written. However, memory research has shown that our ability to recall past events is not entirely accurate. We may be quite confident that our in depth account of a particular event is correct, but research has shown that confidence does not equate to accuracy. As an example, you might feel very confident in your memory of the day you learned to swim, but it is quite possible that your parents have a different account of the event. So what is it that makes flashbulb memories so unique? For one, individuals are significantly more confident in their recollections of flashbulb memories than other memories. Additionally, the phenomenology, or experience of flashbulb memories is different from the way other memories are experienced. Researchers Talarico and Ruben (2007) reported that flashbulb memories are re-experienced with a similar intensity to that of the actual event. Still not convinced that your autobiography may be a bit faulty when written in your later days? Well, let’s take a look at what researchers have done to study flashbulb memories (you can also check out this post on flashbulb memories).

Talarico and Ruben examined how flashbulb memories and everyday memories differ over time. Participants were selected from Duke University the day after the September 11th attacks for their memory of the occurrence. Students were asked to recall 9/11, and a recent everyday memory of their choice. They were also asked to return after 1 week, 6 weeks, and 32 weeks for assessments of their recollection of both the flashbulb and everyday memory. Details of each memory were marked for consistency in comparison to participants’ initial written accounts.

Recall of the flashbulb memory and everyday memory were similar, in that they both showed decreased consistency over time. In spite of this, while confidence in everyday memories decreased over time, confidence remained consistently high for flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories were also rated as more negative than everyday memories, possibly accounting for higher ratings of emotional intensity. Researchers also looked at the perspective in which participants recalled the memories (field vs. observer). A field perspective refers to recollection of the event from one’s own eyes, whereas an observer perspective refers to recollection from the view of an outsider. As an example, one’s traumatic experience of childhood abuse is likely to be consistently recalled from a field perspective, such that it is discussed from a first person point of view, even with the passage of time. Observer perspective refers to recollection from a third-person point of view, such that the individual recalls the incident from the view of an observer.  Initially, both types of memory were seen from a field perspective, but as time passed, only everyday memories switched to an observer perspective. Furthermore, flashbulb memories were rehearsed more than everyday memories, though this in no way is suggestive of greater accuracy.

So, what about that autobiography you read in grade school? Or perhaps the one you plan to write when you qualify as a senior citizen? We are confident that our retelling of autobiographical memories closely resembles the actual event; however, as demonstrated in this research, accuracy does not differentiate flashbulb memories from everyday memories. Flashbulb memories are certainly not immune to intrusions in narrative and recollection. So, the next time you nostalgically share a childhood memory, it may do you well to jokingly alert the audience of your erroneous, but vivid remembrance.


Talarico, J. M., & Rubin, D. C. (2007). Flashbulb memories are special after all; in phenomenology, not accuracy. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21(5), 557-578. doi:10.1002/acp.1293

You can access the article here: http://sites.lafayette.edu/talaricj/files/2009/09/TalaricoRubin2007.pdf


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  1. October 21st, 2015 at 21:01 | #1

    While I was reading this post, your mention of the day you learned to swim reminded me of my own experience of swimming for the first time. If I were to describe this event now, it would probably be slightly different from my description of it ten years ago. This difference would result because flashbulb memories decrease in consistency over time (Talarico & Rubin, 2007). This passage of time that causes forgetting is known as decay. However, does this always happen? Or can specific cues affect the recall of flashbulb memories? I have pictures of my first time swimming, so I wonder if the pictures help me recall the event more accurately. In general, cues aid in the retrieval of a memory, so when I look at the pictures of myself swimming, I can likely remember that day with more accuracy. Another post about flashbulb memories explains that negative flashbulb memories are more accurate than positive ones (Bohn & Berntsen, 2007). Cues therefore may potentially help in the retrieval of flashbulb memories, but since there are other factors that affect flashbulb memories, such as the emotions attached to them, there is still likely to be some inaccuracy in their recall.

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