Brown and Kulik (1977)
suggested the term flashbulb memory
for the “circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event,” for example, hearing the news that President John Kennedy had been shot. Since Brown and Kulik's description of their findings, the range of topics addressed in studies of flashbulb memories has grown substantially, from initial questions about special mechanisms (McCloskey, Wible, & Cohen, 1988
; Neisser & Harsh, 1992
) to more recent questions about the impact of aging and dementia (Budson, Simons, Sullivan, Beier, Solomon, Scinto, et al., 2004
; Budson, Simons, Waring, Sullivan, Hussoin, & Schacter, 2007
; Davidson, Cook, & Glisky, 2005), the history of post-traumatic stress disorder (Qin, Mitchell, Johnson, Krystal, Southwick et all, 2003
), as well as the role of social identity [e.g., as seen in the presence or absence, respectively, of flashbulb memories of French citizens and French-speaking Belgians of the death of French President Mitterraand (Curci, Luminet, Finkenauer, & Gisle, 2001
; see also Berntsen, 2008
; Hirst & Meksin, 2008
)]. Researchers have also begun to investigate memories for the flashbulb event itself (Curci & Luminet, 2006
; Luminet, Curci, Marsh, Wessel, Constantin, Genocoz, et al., 2004
; Pezdak, 2003
; Shapiro, 2006
; Tekcan, Berium, Gülgöz, & Er, 2003
). In this literature, the term flashbulb memory
refers to memory for circumstances in which one learned of the event and would include memories of where, when, and from whom one learned of, for instance, the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The term event memory
refers to memory for facts about the flashbulb event and would include, for instance, that four planes were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack and that both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were targets.1
Flashbulb memories and their associated event memories are often considered special because they involve events that are not ordinary or everyday, and usually are not personally experienced, but rather, they are public and emotionally charged (Neisser, 1982
). It is the public nature of flashbulb memories and their associated event memories that ensures the memories strongly influence both individual and collective identity (Berntsen, 2008
; Hirst & Meksin, 2008
; Neisser, 1982
). Their role in shaping identity depends, of course, on their being retained (Bruner, 1990
; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000
). Surprisingly, whereas much is known about how well flashbulb and event memories are retained over a period of approximately a year, much less is known about their long-term retention. This relative neglect applies not just to the issue of the amount retained, but also to differences in the kind of information that is retained over the long-term and the factors that might affect the level and content of long-term retention. For instance, whereas many researchers have emphasized that flashbulb events inevitably elicit strong emotions from individuals, few researchers have contrasted the long-term retention of memories of these emotional reactions with the long-term retention of memories of other features of flashbulb memories, for example, who you were with when learning of the event, where you were, or how you were informed (see, however, Levine, Safer, & Lench, 2006
). Moreover, although a number of psychological studies have related the level of retention to individual cognitive factors (e.g., rehearsal), none have discussed the contribution of memory practices, that is, the way a society goes about ensuring that a public event will never be forgotten by the public (Hirst & Manier, 2008
; Olick & Robbins, 1998
; but see Hoskins, 2007
). Memory practices may play a role in the retention of flashbulb and event memories given the public nature of the reference event.
The present paper, then, focuses on four issues: (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. It explores these issues in the context of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
Consider the issue of long-term retention. From the extant research, it is not clear whether forgetting for flashbulb and event memories slows or accelerates after the first year. Three studies suggest that the rate of forgetting of flashbulb memories slows dramatically after the first year. Two of these studies based their conclusions on the vividness or accuracy of flashbulb memories. Kvavilashvili, Mirani, Schlagman, and Kornbrot (2003)
found that British citizens reported vivid, confidently held memories of the circumstances under which they learned of the death of Princess Diana, even after a delay of 51 months. Berntsen and Thomsen (2005)
discovered that elderly Danes accurately remembered the weather on the day of the German W.W. II invasion of and withdrawal from Denmark.
Neither of these studies, however, employed a test-retest methodology, in which memories are assessed shortly after the flashbulb event and then after a significant retention interval. This methodology supplies a putatively reliable memory with which to compare the consistency of later recollections and is consequently the preferred means of studying flashbulb memories (see, however, Winningham, Hyman, & Dinnel, 2000
). Kvavilashvili et al. did not have an initial assessment for a test-retest. Berntsen and Thomsen had verifiable information about the original event, but their documentary methodology does not permit as wide a ranging examination of mnemonic attributes as the test-retest method does. Relying on public records such as weather reports largely precludes exploring those attributes Brown and Kulik (1977)
identified as the canonical features of flashbulb memories, for example, who the respondent was with, how the respondent reacted emotionally, or who the informant was. Bohannon and Symons (1992
; see also Bohannon, 1988
) conducted the third study, finding a slowing in forgetting, and did employ a test-retest methodology in their investigation of the Challenger explosion, but, in the end, based their conclusions about the rate of forgetting on cross-sectional data.
Two studies did ground their conclusions about long-term retention on the results of test-retests. Unfortunately, Neisser and Harsh (1992)
employed only one retest in their study of the Challenger explosion, making any analysis of the rate of forgetting difficult. On the other hand, Schmolck, Buffalo, and Squire (2000)
used two retests in their study of the announcement of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. They found that at 15 months, a little less than 40% of the flashbulb memories they examined contained no distortions, and only about 10% contained major distortions. At 32 months, the pattern was reversed: Only about 20% contained no distortions and over 40% of the memories contained major distortions. These results strongly support the claim that the rate of forgetting increases, rather than slows, over time.
Because of the controversy over the rate of forgetting of flashbulb memories, it is difficult to evaluate Talarico and Rubin's (2003)
claim that, despite a flashbulb event's public and emotionally charged nature, the rate of forgetting of flashbulb memories is the same as the rate of forgetting of ordinary autobiographical memories. Talarico and Rubin suggested that flashbulb memories and ordinary autobiographical memories differ not in their rate of forgetting, but in the confidence with which they are held, with confidence in flashbulb memories remaining high, even as the memories are forgotten. Confidence in ordinary autobiographical memories declines as the memories are forgotten (see also Weaver, 1993
). Talarico and Rubin, however, only tested retention intervals of eight months or less. Schmolck et al. (2002)'s findings indicated that flashbulb memories may be an exception to the pattern of forgetting observed for ordinary, autobiographical memories when long-term retention intervals are considered.
Talarico and Rubin (2003)
compared their participants' memory for their reception event for 9/11 with a self-selected autobiographical memory – a memory of an “everyday” event from the three days before September 11. A perhaps more general point of comparison would be the forgetting curves obtained in diary studies (Rubin, 2005
). These studies involve the assessment of a wide-range of types of memories over a substantial period. The forgetting curves collected across studies are remarkably similar, showing rapid forgetting in the first year and then slowing. As a result, they indicate that autobiographical memories may follow the well-established pattern of forgetting documented since Ebbinghaus (1913/1964)
. Linton (1986)
, for instance, showed dramatic forgetting over the first year and then a much slower rate of forgetting of 6% for the next five years. Similarly, Wagenaar (1986)
found a substantial decline of 20% in the first year for critical details and then a slower decline of approximately 10% for the next four years. If Talarico and Rubin's findings of equivalent forgetting of flashbulb and ordinary memories up to eight months extends to longer retention intervals, then the diary studies would suggest that the results of Schmolck et al. (2000)
are an anomaly, and those of Bohannon and Symons (1992)
, Kvavilashvili et al. (2003)
, and Berntsen and Thomsen (2005)
may be more typical.
In the present study, we asked whether the accelerated forgetting Schmolck et al. (2000)
observed for the Simpson verdict between the first and third years applies as well to flashbulb memories for the terrorist attack of 9/11. Consequently, we assessed our participant's memory for 9/11 one week, 11 months and 35 months after the terrorist attack. We choose the 11 months and 35 months retention intervals because they were in the same time frame used by Schmolck et al., but minimized potential effects of anniversary commemorations.
In addition, we also examined the retention of associated event memories at one week, 11 months, and 35 months after the terrorist attack. The scant relevant literature on event memory is as inconclusive about long-term retention as the literature on flashbulb memories. Bahrick and his colleagues (Bahrick, 1983
; Bahrick, Bahrick, & Wittlinger, 1975
) have shown that neutral facts, such as the names of fellow college students, college streets, or college-learned Spanish vocabulary, are steadily forgotten for six years, and then, if still retained, preserved for decades to come. Along the same lines, Belli, Schuman, and Jackson (1997)
found good retention after decades for newsworthy events such as the Tet Offensive, at least for participants for whom the event “defined” their generation. Neither of these studies examined whether respondents remembered the circumstances in which they learned of the event, making their relevance to the topic of flashbulb memories at best speculative. The flashbulb memory studies that also explored event memory indicate that for retention intervals of a year or less, event memories are subject to a steady decline (Finkenhauer, Luminet, Gisle, & Filipopot, 1998; Smith, Bibi, & Sheard, 2003
; Tekcan et al., 2003
). In the only study that examined event memory at longer retention intervals, Bohannon and Symons (1992)
found that event memories declined a substantial 20% between the 15-month and 36-month intervals, suggesting that, while the rate of forgetting may not accelerate, it clearly does not slow after a year.
Finally, as noted earlier, we also investigated whether long-term retention for emotional reactions to 9/11 differs from memory for other features of flashbulb memories, as well as what factors shape long-term retention of different features. There is almost no research comparing memory for emotional reactions with memory for other features of flashbulb memory (but see Qin et al., 2003
). Levine and colleagues explored memory for emotional reactions to flashbulb events, but used relatively short retention intervals and did not make comparisons with other features, as we do here (Levine, Prohaska, Burgess, Rice, & Laulhere, 2001
; Levine, Whalen, Henker, & Jamner, 2005
As for the factors that might affect retention, we explore whether any similarity in the patterns of forgetting of flashbulb memories and event memories implies that the processes that underlie the retention (and forgetting) of these two types of memories are the same. Some research on flashbulb memories and event memories would suggest that the underlying processes are similar. For instance, through their modeling of the formation and maintenance of flashbulb memories, Luminet, Curci, and their colleagues have argued that some factors involved in the formation of event memories overlap with those involved in the formation of flashbulb memories (e.g., rehearsal, see Luminet, 2008
, for a review). Their model also documented differences in factors uniquely involved in the formation of flashbulb memories, specifically, surprise and novelty. Testing the complex models developed by this group goes beyond a chief aim of the present paper – to explore long-term retention of flashbulb memories and event memories. Nevertheless, we investigated some factors that could putatively predict levels of forgetting. We also examined the way the content of the memories changes over time, on the assumption that if the predictors or content changes differ for flashbulb and event memories, then different processes may be involved.
We are not only interested in intrapsychic factors. We also present analyses in the General Discussion that suggest provide evidence that different retention curves reported in the literature can be attributed to different social memory practices.