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Power of Emotions on Memory

Have you ever had a moment or event in your life that was so significant that even though it happened many years ago you are still able remember vivid details of that day? This type of memory is called a flashbulb memory. Many Americans have developed a flashbulb memory for September 11th, 2001 because it was such a shocking and significant event in their lives. Are you one of the many people who have a flashbulb memory of this day? Where were you when you first heard the news of the plane crash? What were you doing when you heard the news? These questions were adapted from questions asked in a study on flashbulb memories conducted by Bohn and Berntsen in 2007. If you can answer these questions, then you have a flashbulb memory. Congrats!


Flashbulb memories are an interesting topic for many reasons. Though people tend to be very confident in the validity of their flashbulb memories, the truth of the matter is these vivid memories are just as susceptible to alteration and degradation as normal memories. Flashbulb memories tend to include inaccurate details. But what if the quality of your memory could be altered simply by your mood? That is precisely what Bohn and Berntsen set out to test in their study.  They tested the differences in your mood at the time of the event, affected your flashbulb memory.

For such a study, the experimenters needed a surprising and significant event that would have been experienced by many people. Bohn and Berntsend ended up choosing the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989 reuniting East and West Germany after being divided for 28 years! This single event had a great impact on the lives of Germans living on either side of the Wall. Thus it was a great event for the experiment!

Participants were chosen from two political groups: Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (PDS) and the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU). PDS was the party who had initiated the building of the Wall in the first place, and therefore members probably would not have appreciated the destruction of the Wall. CDU, on the other hand, made it part of their mission to reunify Germany. Thus, most members were probably very excited at the fall of the Wall.

The study used a questionnaire to test and compare people’s emotional states and their flashbulb memories. The questions were modeled after questionnaires and questions used in past experiments (Conway et al., 1994; Finkenauer et al., 1998;, Bernsten, Willert & Rubin, 2003; Sheen Kemp & Rubin, 2001).  The questionnaire contained six sections.

The first section asked questions to determine whether the person has a flashbulb memory of the event. The next section of questions focused on consequences (either personal or financial) of the event in the participant’s life and how often they rehearsed or recalled the memory. The third section of the questionnaire asked about the quality of their memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as vividness. The forth section of questions assessed the impact of the event on the person’s life and how it was incorporated into the participant’s identify. The fifth section asked questions about the participant’s age, sex, education, and citizenship at the time of the event. The final section questions were asked public facts of the event such as who was the head of state in East/West Germany at the time of the event.

The experimenters used the two distinct emotions to separate the participants into two groups: positive (emotions) group and negative (emotions) group.

One interesting thing the experimenters found was that the people who held negative emotions toward the event back in 1989, felt significantly less negative towards the event now. People who felt positively about the event, however, still felt just as positive about the event when they took the questionnaire, as they did in 1989. One reason people’s positive views did not fade over time could be due to thinking and talking about the event a lot (Bohn and Berntsen 2007). In fact, the experimenters found that those in the positive group did indeed recall the memory of the event more often than those in the negative group. This makes sense because if the memory brings up negative emptions why would a person want to relive it? Thus they avoid the memory and after time, the intensity of the emotion linked to the flashbulb memory fades.

Another interesting observation had to do with the accuracy and inaccuracy of facts reported in the sixth section of the questionnaire. On the whole, participants were pretty good at remembering facts of the event. Not only did the participants in the positive group, on average, answered more questions than the participants in the negative group, but they also had a higher percentage of wrong answers than the negative group. This suggests that the negative group was less willing to guess at answers than the positive group (Bohn and Berntsen, 2007). This might be due to an evolutionary advantage where negative emotions cause people to pay closer attention to details (Storbeck & Clore, 2005).  This makes sense if you think about it.  A person who has experienced a situation that invokes negative emotions would most likely not want to experience that situation again. Thus it is an evolutionary advantage to remember the details of the event as accurate as possible so as to learn from the event and not have to go through it again.

Positive emotions usually lead to people remembering the big picture of the event rather than the details. Participants in the positive group think about the event frequently but since are likely to make assumptions and guess as to what happened, this could lead to inaccurate details being remembered as true. The more time a person recalls the memory, the more these assumptions and guesses seem familiar and part of the original memory. This is how a flashbulb memory could contain inaccurate details.  Furthermore, the constant recalling of the memory might increase the confidence in the memory (Bohn and Berntsen, 2007). Therefore even though participants in the positive group rated significantly higher on the reliving, clarity, and emotional intensity when remembering the fall of the Wall, this does not mean that all the things they are remembering are necessarily true.

Also intriguing was that higher quality of memories in the positive group as not associated with higher levels of surprise; in other words, it had been argued in the past (Brown and Kulik, 1977) that the more surprising or unusual the event was, the more powerful and vivid the flashbulb memory would be. However, in this experiment by Bohn and Berntsen, both the positive and the negative group rated the fall of the Wall as equally surprising but participants in the positive group found their memory of the event to be much more vivid than the flashbulb memories of the participants in the negative group.

The negative group’s flashbulb memories were found to be more accurate than the positive group’s flashbulb memories. The positive group, however, had strong, more vivid flashbulb memories to the point where they felt as if they could relive the event. Participants in the positive group talked more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than those in the negative group. Nevertheless, both groups found the fall of the Berlin Wall to be an emotionally intense event. What are the emotions attached to your flashbulb memory whether it be September 11th, The Fall of the Berlin Wall, JFK’s assassination, or maybe something more personal like your first kiss? Are the emotions positive? Are they negative? The emotions attached to the flashbulb memory might seem like a side detail relative to the shocking event the emotions surround, but in fact they play an important in maintain your memory.


Berntsen, D., Willert, M., & Rubin, D. C. (2003). Splintered memories or vivid landmarks? Qualities and organization of traumatic memories with and without PTSD. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(6), 675-693.

Brown, R., and Kulik, J. (1997). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73-99.

Bohn, Annette, and Dorthe Berntsen. “Pleasantness bias in flashbulb memories: Positive and negative flashbulb memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall among East and West Germans.” Memory & Cognition 35.3 (2007): 565-577.

Conway, M. A., Anderson, S. J., Larsen, S.F., Donnelly, C. M., McDaniel, M. A., McClelland, A. G.R. et al. (1994). The formation of flashbulb memories. Memory and Cognition, 22, 326-343.

Finkenauer, C., Luminet, O., Gisle, L., El-Ahmadi, A., Van Der Linden, M., & Philippot, P. (1998). Flashbulb memories and the underlying mechanisms of their formation: Toward an emotional-integrative model. Memory & Cognition, 26(3), 516-531.

Sheen, M., Kemp, S., & Rubin, D. (2001). Twins dispute memory ownership: A new false memory phenomenon. Memory & Cognition, 29(6), 779-788.

Storbeck, J., and Clore, G. L. (2005). With sadness comes accuracy; with happiness, false memory: Mood and the false memory

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  1. March 19th, 2014 at 22:01 | #1

    I thought your blog was interesting, since we usually do not question our mood and its effect on the quality and accuracy of flash bulb memories. However, I think everyone is aware of the impact emotion has on memory in general. I think everything in the study makes sense given our knowledge of memory and human nature. In the positive group, people probably talked about it a lot and relived it with their friends and family, while the negative group repressed the memory to make it fade away. However, I am curious as to why the negative group didn’t feel so negative about the event looking back on it, as they did during the event. You state that the reason for this could be because the negative group repressed the memory and forgot some of the details. I wonder if the negative group could have justified the event in their minds over time in order to lower negative feelings in their mind.

  2. March 20th, 2014 at 11:43 | #2

    What an interesting post! What I found to be most interesting is that, based on what we’ve learned about recall and memory, I think that it would make sense for the people with positive feelings about an event (and therefore would be more likely to recall it multiple times) would remember more accurate details about the event than people with negative emotions who were less inclined to recall details about the event. Instead, these results show the opposite to be true. I think it’s amazing to think about how one’s mood can alter the way in which people form memories. As this post points out, an event that is associated with more negative emotion seems to result in a more accurate memory than when it is associated with positive emotion. However, it makes me wonder whether there is a threshold for emotion-intensity that, if an emotion is so negative and so intense that the person somehow blocks the ability to form a memory altogether. For example, when someone goes into shock… it is my understanding that one has no memory of the event that happened at that moment. So, what is it that makes these negative events different than others in forming memory?

  3. September 18th, 2014 at 10:29 | #3

    Several years ago, my parents told me where they were when they heard about the Sept. 11th attacks. The news coverage of the towers slowly falling was playing on the TV in our house for the whole day, as my parents went about there business in the house. As a 6 year old, I stayed and watched. Now, I have no memory of this, and of course at the time what I was watching didn’t mean anything to me. What I do remember vividly is the moment I recieved a text telling me Michael Jackson was dead, which of course I immediately dismissed as untrue. I don’t think I had any strong emotions at the time, but that piece of information has been linked with the a perfect mental image of my backyard and the cloudiness of the sky and where the shadows fell.

    The concept of a flashbulb memory has always been fascinating to me; it’s like an episodic memory but much stronger. The Fall of the Berlin Wall was a momentous event not only for the two parties mentioned in your post, but for the whole world. Intuitively, the effect of emotion on flashbulb memories as you makes a lot of sense. Someone who was happy about the event would make their happiness known to everyone and recall the memory constantly to other people happy about the event, strengthening their memories of the shared event. People who were not happy with the event would repress their bad memory and eventually forget the emotion involved.

    The effects of emotion on memories like this are very social-based. The Berlin Wall was not exactly a 50/50 controversial topic; the large majority of the world is happy that it fell. For that reason, someone who was unhappy about it at the time would not be so enthusiastic about sharing their feelings, not only because they would not want to dwell on a bad memory, but also because there would be a good chance that others would think less of them for that reason. Ryan, you said at the end of your comment that maybe the PDS had justified the event in their minds to make the emotion fade, but I think it’s more like they accepted defeat. Like I said, the Fall of the Berlin Wall was a global event, and with so many people against you, it would do you good to just let it go. If someone had say, a bad first kiss experience, I would think that flashbulb memory would be dwelled on and altered the same way the CDU recalled the fall, because that is a negative experience of a performance that you can improve upon, a mistake that you can correct. The broader point about remembering the big picture vs. the details still stands, but I think it’s more dependant on your involvement and control over the situation. My dad has a flashbulb memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s a big picture memory because he wasn’t involved at all; he just has a strong episodic memory of learning the information while being in a certain context. The CDU had big picture memories because they won, and at that moment they didn’t need to remember what mistakes they made. The PDS had only their mistakes to think about, because the Berlin Wall was their doing and their actions were important to the event.

    The point on emotion here is a social one, and I think further study is needed to think about it cognitively. Do people relive the emotion when they recall an emotional and vivid memory? Is there a way this can be isolated from social factors? Flashbulb memories are hard to study because our only examples a large global events, which of course are social. In old Colonial America, people had flashbulb memories of the moment they heard about the shots fired in Lexington, and their memory was affected not only by their emotion at the time but also their political and moral veiws on the subject. I can remember where I was when I heard about Robin Williams’ suicide, and I feel sad now. The problem is that I don’t know if that sadness is carried over from when I heard it or it’s new sadness right now.

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