The reliability of human memory, though typically seen as quite accurate and trust-worthy, has been questioned by researchers in recent decades. In particular, one area of memory that has raised questioning is emotional memories that are extraordinarily vivid and detailed, which were first referred to as ‘flashbulb memories’ in 1977 by Roger Brown and James Kulik, which occur due to powerful events such as the death of Princess Diana, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. These memories are not as reliable as perceived, and do not provide accurate details of past events reliably. This can be seen in the following two journal articles; one which looks at memory recollection after 9/11 occurred over 3 different time periods, straight after, 1 year after and 3 years after, and the other looks at the flashbulb memories produced after the nuclear attacks in Japan in 1999. It is important to adopt the idea that flashbulb memories do not provide accurate details of past events reliably, and more so look at them just like every other memory.
The first journal article examines long-term retention of memory from the tragedy that is the terrorist attacks of September 11. The study had over 3000 individuals from seven US cities report on their learning of the attacks, as well as details about the attack, one week, 11 months and 35 months after the assault. The following were focused on in the study: “ (1) the long-term retention of flashbulb and event memories, (2) the comparative retention of emotional reactions with the retention of other features of a flashbulb event, (3) possible difference in the underlying processing associated with the formation and retention of flashbulb and event memories, and (4) the factors that shape long-term retention, including the role of memory practices. “ (Hirst W. Et al, 2009, para. 3) The study was conducted simply through 3 similarly designed surveys for the different time periods, with the first 6 questions relating to developing consistency of flashbulb memories, the next 4 on the accuracy of event memories, and the remaining questions on predictors, with confidence levels recorded for each answer as well. Concluding the research study, it was found that the rate of forgetting for flashbulb memories and event memory slows after a year, the strong emotional reactions drawn out by flashbulb events are remember poorly, and that the content of flashbulb and event memories stabilizes after a year.
The second journal article consists of a study that looks at the nuclear accident that occurred in Japan, in 1999 and whether or not different aspects such as the source, place, activity or people have an effect on the accuracy of flashbulb memories. The study was conducted through a questionnaire which was distributed twice; 3 weeks and a year after the event occurred, to people that lived on the site of the bombing as well as in the surrounding area. The questionnaire asked such questions as “from where did you receive the news?” and, “how many times did you talk about it with other people?” at both time periods to see the consistency of answers, along side to see if there was any outside influence on the persons memory. The results from the study determined that only a small portion of participants indicated accurate flashbulb memories, alongside this, those that did have accurate flashbulb memories reported rehearsing the memory more than those that had inaccurate memories - this encourages the idea that flashbulb memories are formed through rehearsal, rather than at encoding. (Otani, h., et al., 2005, p. 6)
Like every study, the one regarding September 11th also has strengths and weaknesses when collecting and evaluating the data to come to a conclusion on the accuracy of flashbulb memories, however the strengths of the study outweigh that of the weaknesses. The first strength of the study is that it provides data not only from one time period from when the event occurred, but from...
References: Hirst W, et al., (2010) Long-term memory for the terrorist attack of September 11: Flashbulb memories, event memories, and the factors that influence their retention, J Exp Psychol Gen. May 2009; 138(2): 161-176, DOI: 10.1037/a0015527
Lilienfeld S., et al., (2012) Psychology - From Inquiry to Understanding, Chapter 8, p 328-338 , NSW, Pearson
Otani H, et al., (2005) Remembering a nuclear accident in Japan: Did it trigger flashbulb memories?, Memory, 13:1, 6-20, DOI:
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