Confidence, not Consistency Characterizes Flashbulb Memories

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As defined in the article, flashbulb memories are memories that are enduring and vividly recalled and are associated with a significant or monumental event. The article seeks to answer the questions: “Compared with everyday memories from the same time, are flashbulb memories more consistent? Do participants have a greater sense of recollection and vividness of flashbulb memories, as well as greater belief in their accuracy? ” (Talarico & Rubin, 2003) regarding this type of memories.

To answer these questions, Talarico and Rubin set up an experiment in which a group of people were tested for the vividness of the memory, the recollection of the memory, the confidence in the accuracy of their memory, and the “rehearsal for both flashbulb and everyday memories” (Talarico & Rubin, 2003). A total of 54 students from Duke University were questioned for their recollection of the September 11 attacks the day after, and were assigned randomly into three different groups with different follow-up dates to question their recollection again, making 18 people per group. The first group’s follow-up was done 1 week later, the second group 6 weeks later, and the third group 32 weeks later.

During each session, the participants were asked two sets of open-ended questions. The first set was regarding how they heard of the 9/11 attacks and the researchers asked questions such as; “Who were you with, when you heard about the event?” or “How did you react to this event?” or “Do you recall any other vivid memory regarding this event?” addressing their flashbulb memory. The second set concerned the participant’s everyday memory. The researchers targeted an everyday event from the participant's life prior to the attacks and asked what the event was and who the participants were at the time of this event, and if there was any particular vivid detail about the event addressing their everyday memory. The questions were kept relatively similar between the 9/11 events and everyday events to make it easier to compare the answers together. During the second session, the phrase used to cue the flashbulb memory was kept the same, whereas a short description the participants provided in the first session was used to cue the everyday memory.

In addition to these questions, participants were given the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire, which is a self-report scale used to evaluate characteristics of autobiographical memory. Questions were asked to the participants regarding how much they “feel as though they are reliving the event”. Other questions were asked to test their belief in the event, such as if the participants “believe that their recollection of the memory was accurate”. Also, some questions used include whether or not the participants “felt the emotions as strongly as they did then, such as butterflies in their stomach or if they feel tense or not”. The participants answered these questions on a scale from 1 to 7, 1 being not at all and 7 being completely/ as if it were occurring now.

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The authors converted the answers to the questionnaires in both sessions to data scores and analyzed using existing statistical methods in literature to test their hypotheses. Based on their data, their most significant finding is that there is no statistical difference between the flashbulb and everyday memories in terms of consistency and over time, the number of details accurately remembered regarding flashbulb and everyday memories decreased at a constant rate. They also found that flashbulb memories are higher in narrative coherence, less fragmented and have greater emotional intensity.

In general, I find the results of the article valid and consistent with the process of memory retrieval. According to the latest research, reconsolidation, which is the process of recalling previously consolidated memories and reactivating those memories, takes place during memory retrieval. During reconsolidation, memories tend to be in a fragile and flexible state, which can lead to people adjusting and revising the memory whether or not they want to. This happens to any memory, regardless of the type of memory it is, such as a flashbulb or an everyday memory and regardless of how confident you are that your memory is accurate. So the claim of “there is no statistical difference between the flashbulb and everyday memories in terms of consistency and over time” seems to be valid.

However, I think there are a few points that can be criticized regarding their experimental design. I believe that the subjects selected could have been more diverse so that the results could be generalized to a larger population. Their sample only consisted of 54 students from Duke University, 14 of whom are male. In order for this experiment to be able to generalize to a larger population, they should have more people from different age groups and should test on more males to balance out the amount of people from different genders and from different ages.

For a long time, researchers mostly believed that flashbulb memories were actually accurate memories of important events. However, in 1982, cognitive psychologist Ulric Niesser recalled a memory regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor which helped scientists understand that flashbulb memories weren’t actually all that accurate. Niesser stated that he was listening to a baseball game on his radio, sitting in the living room of a house that he only lived in for a year. Then, an announcement interrupted the game, talking about the attacks, and at that point Niesser ran to tell his mother upstairs. However, Niesser was reading about flashbulb memories years later and he realized that his memory had to be incorrect. “This memory has been so clear for so long that I never confronted its inherent absurdity until last year: no one broadcasts baseball games in December!” (Niesser, 1986). Apparently, even though Niesser vividly remembers listening to a baseball game, he was actually listening to a football game between two teams that had the same name as two other baseball teams. Niesser proved with this memory of his, that even though flashbulb memories come to mind more vividly than other memories, they are still prone to errors like any other memory type.

I had a similar experience myself, over estimating the power of my memory for significant events in my life. During the springtime of 8th grade, me and the rest of the P.E. classes were out on the field playing Capture the Flag. I remember wearing my gray P.E. shirt along with my black P.E. shorts and pink Adidas running shoes. I decided to protect the flags from the other team, so I stayed behind the goalpost to defend our flags from the opposing side. As I was running toward a guy who was approaching our items, I ran into this other guy. We both were running towards each other unaware of each other, that resulted into us colliding and me falling to the floor. He came over and apologized and tried to help me up, but I must have fallen on my leg really hard because I wasn’t able to get back up. At that moment, he called our P.E. teacher to inform her of my accident, and soon enough, they put me on a wheelchair to take me to the nurse. I waited at the nurse’s office for a while before my parents came to take me to the hospital emergency room. When we were finally at the hospital and after I got my x-rays taken, the doctor came in and said that I had a fractured knee bone and that I would have to wear a cast and walk around on crutches for about 6 weeks. That was how I remembered that things went down.

It turns out that this memory of my fractured knee was actually false. A couple of weeks ago, me and my dad were having a conversation that led to us ultimately taking about the very same incident. I told him how I remembered that I fractured my knee bone one time in the 8th grade, however he said that I did not fracture my knee, and that I only had a sprain instead. He said that although the emergency doctor at the hospital diagnosed as a fracture, the specialist we later saw corrected the diagnosis as a sprain of the ligaments around the bone. And that I still had to put on a cast. I did not believe him at first, and I insisted that I remembered that my knee was fractured. My dad was also very confident in his memory and decided to look through pictures and reports from around the time I had a fractured bone, and he was indeed correct. I did have a sprain in my knee and that I did not actually fracture my knee. Even though I was incredibly convinced that I had a fractured knee and even though my memories of a fractured knee were very vivid and seemed very authentic, my memory was false.

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