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Flashbulb Memories: How Our Memories Change Overtime and Why We are so Confident in Them

Is there a specific event in your life that you will always remember, no matter how much time passes? What about a public event, a tragic one, one that your whole community experienced? Is there a specific eveWorld Trade Center Attackednt that comes to mind? For many people, the tragic September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City come to mind when asked this question. Ask just about anyone alive during this time, and they can probably tell you where they were when the attacks occurred, or what they were doing, or how they were feeling. Oftentimes, when such an important or prominent event takes place, people can recall it very vividly. A person’s recollection of how they were feeling during such an event is called a flashbulb memory, while their recollection of specific details of the event is called an event memory.

 Flashbulb memories are interesting because of how very detailed and vivid they are, even years and years after an event occurs. The question being debated by many psychologists is, how much do flashbulb memories change over time? How can the long-term retention of flashbulb memories be characterized? For example, after 9/11, one might initially recall being at work when he/she hears the news of the plane crashes. However, a month later, when asked again, the same person could report being at home making breakfast. Typically, you wouldn’t expect flashbulb memories to ever change at all because of how detailed, and vividly they are recalled. Nonetheless, changes in flashbulb memories occur quite often. How much and how often do flashbulb memories really change? Why do they change? These are the questions psychologists are seeking to understand.

In the present study, peoples’ memories of 9/11 are examined over the course of 10 years. Hirst et al. surveyed a total of 3,462 participants all across the country. They initially surveyed the participants within the first week of the attacks with questions pertaining to the “who, what when, where, how” of their experience during the time that the attacks occurred. Hirst et al. then followed up with similar questions 11 months, 35 months, and 119 months after the attacks occurred.

First examined were the consistency of the participants’ flashbulb memories, the associated levels of confidence, and the accuracy of participants’ event memories. The second set of results that were examined were several factors that could possibly have affected consistency of flashbulb memories and/or accuracy of event memories. Such factors include: residency at the time of attack, level of emotional intensity, exposure to media, conversation about the event, and personal loss/inconvenience. The third set of results examined were how the memories changed over time.

The study found that the overwhelming majority of participants formed flashbulb memories of their reception of 9/11. Participants even had an elaborate recollection 10 years later, getting down to the smallest of details, like what they were wearing, thinking, even eating. Participants did, however, experience forgetting in that their original recollection differed from their recollections years thereafter. Hirst et al. found that the most forgetting occurred in the first year, and then leveled off. Between years 3 and 10 there was no detectable change in memory. Another interesting result to note is that in the 10th year, participants reported their memories with the same level of confidence as they did in the very first week of the 9/11 attacks. Also found was that none of the five factors affected the consistency of flashbulb memories. These factors, however, affected both confidence of flashbulb memories and accuracy of event memories.

The study showed that greater exposure to the media and ensuing conversation after 9/11 led to greater confidence in memories. This could be due to a multitude of factorUnknowns. For one, memory is subjective, and consequently vulnerable to external stimuli. Therefore, repeated exposure to media of 9/11 and/or copious conversation about the attacks leads to greater rehearsal and reminding of the reception event. This increases the vividness of participants’ subjective memories. Residency also showed to affect confidence. This is evident in that people who lived in New York at the time of the attacks reported their memories with higher ratings of confidence than did non-New Yorkers. The accuracy of event memories was affected by exposure to media and ensuing conversation because exposure to such things helped to correct inaccurate memories of details of the event.

It is clear that people experience forgetting, even for emotionally salient events. We would like to think that our memory doesn’t change for such important events, yet ample evidence shows otherwise. Our memory is extremely subjective to decay, which sounds like a bad thing, but is it really? If we remembered everything in our life exactly as it occurred, down to every detail, we would be in trouble. Most people have things in their life that they don’t want to remember, such as traumas or tragedies. Not even just that, but if people’s memories didn’t decay, they would remember countless irrelevant things. Daniel Schacter explains the ways in which our memories change in what he calls the “Seven Sins of Memory.”

The Seven Sins of Memory are broken into two categories: errors of omission, and errors of commission. Errors of omission are when people fail to remember something, while errors of commission are when memories change. When it comes to flashbulb memories, people typically experience errors of commission. Several factors affecting flashbulb memories were previously discussed, however four of the Seven Sins can also help to explain why changes in memory occur.

First, there is suggestibility, the integration of misleading information. This can occur when false information is accepted from another source. Second, there is misattribution, which occurs when someone recalls the information, but confuses the source it came from. Third, there is bias, which happens when a person’s own feelings or views affect their recollection of an event. Lastly, there is persistence, which refers to a persistent recollection of something undesirable. All of these sins can act to explain why flashbulb memories change over time.

So even though it has been thoroughly explained that our memory deteriorates, even our very vivid flashbulb memories, next time someone asks you where you were during an event, or what you were doing, or how you were feeling, you will probably report back with the utmost of confidence. To every person, their recollection of a specific vivid event is very real to them, and unless you’re a part of a 10 year longitudinal study, chances are no one can prove to you that your recollections of said event have changed. Ignorance is bliss, I guess!

Hirst, W., Phelps, E. A., & Meksin, R.(2015). Journal of Experimental Psychology: A ten-year follow-up of a study of memory for the attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb memories and memories for flashbulb events, 144, 605-623.

To see the original paper, click here

Check out my peer’s article on 9/11 and flashbulb memories here!




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  1. December 9th, 2015 at 20:16 | #1

    After reading this article, I really began to question my flashbulb memories. I feel as though I have a lot of flashbulb memories from my childhood, though they are not necessarily traumatic events. I can remember events where i’ve had a lot of fun, or times where I have been really scared in vivid detail, but I’ve began to question just how valid these memories may be. I remember arguing with friends about something that we all witnessed together, but we all have very different accounts of the specific event. It is interesting to look back to this and realize that it wasn’t that we all witnessed the event differently, but that our memories of the event changed over time to the point where we remember it completely differently. This brings me to a couple of questions. First, are certain people better at recalling their flashbulb memories, or is it universal that everyone experiences some sort of decay in their recollection of the event? Though it may be impractical, an interesting study idea would be to set up a fake traumatic event, and control each factor so that you know exactly what happened. You would make sure there were witnesses and interview them about what they just experienced. Then 10 years down the road, you could interview them again and ask them very specific questions about the event, and see exactly how much their memories of the event have changed. Although this proposed study would break just about every rule of the “respect for persons” aspect of the Belmont Report, it would be really interesting to create a way to measure exactly how much a person’s memory would decay. The other question I have is exactly how the seven sins of memory directly impact the accuracy of someone’s recollection of an event. What decides which events a person should remember with accuracy, and what decides which events a person is trying to erase from memory? It seems as though there are certain memories that people would definitely want to remember accurately, and would have a positive impact on their lives. There are also clearly memories that people want to forget, and keeping them around would have a negative impact on a person’s life, but do we have control over what we keep and what we lose?

  2. December 10th, 2015 at 11:49 | #2

    It is really interesting how while we think of our Flashbulb Memories as concrete and vivid, they are subject to change as much as any other memory. I thought it was really interesting in this study how exposure to media coverage after 9/11 increased participants’ confidence in their memories, when in reality it could have made these memories even more malleable because of the constant rehearsal. As we discussed in class the more something is retrieved the more it changes. This means that every incident of retrieval has the ability to change the memory, and although this thought can be unsettling, our brain functions this way for a variety of reasons such as to help us cope with tragedy.

    It can be hard hearing that our memory changes for such important events that we are so confident in, are subject to so much change. This shows that our memory can be very fallible, but this isn’t always a bad thing as you mentioned. Jill Price is a woman with an extremely rare condition called hyperthymestic syndrome. The two parts to hyperthymesia are spending too much time amount of time thinking about one’s past and displaying an extraordinary ability to recall specific events from one’s past. Being able to recall what happened on every date of her life since childhood, Jill can’t consciously stop many of these memories from popping up and she describes herself as feeling like “a prisoner to her childhood”. This idea of the inability to forget shows how the Seven Sins of Memory you went over can actually be really helpful in some cases! Sins such as transience help us forget embarrassing or unwanted memories that we do not need to be reminded of constantly.

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