Traumatic Events and Flashbulb Memories

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On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by terrorists and were used as missiles to attack and destroy the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Each of the two planes hit the towers on 80th and 60th floor of the buildings. They left gaping holes of burning flames with hundreds of people trapped inside the buildings and the planes. This collision caused an explosion and the towers collapsed causing debris to cover most of the city. The third plane was aimed for the Pentagon in Washington, D. C. and the fourth plane was forced down by passengers that were victims of this attack and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania before it could have been used to destroy the place it was aimed for. This incident killed over 3,000 people and left a lasting impact on the U.S, and it will never be forgotten about as it serves to remind us of terrosim throughout the world.

The article titled, “Delay Related Changes in Personal Memories for September 11, 2001”, by Peter James Lee and Norman Brown in 2003 found in The Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology examined the study of how people’s recollection of flashbulb memories related to September 11, 2001 changes over time by Lee & Brown, the researchers. The researchers wanted to see how flashbulb memories (memory of rare or striking event with emotional content) are developed over time and see if they are more accurate to the event immediately after or a few days after the event took place. They also wanted to study the test-retest theory that measured the amount of emotions conveyed after a prolonged period of time after the event.

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The study consisted of 1,481 college student participants that were asked to complete a questionnaire 4 to 24 hours after the September 11, 2001 attack or 10 days after learning about the event. There has been similar studies to research the test-retest method, such as the O.J. Simpson event. Within the study related to September 11, the researchers not only tested their memory immediately after the event, but also 7 months later. 142 participants decided to re-test their memory and completed another survey 7 months later to compare the amount of emotion that was expressed immediately after the event and months later. The researchers hypothesized that the group that completed the survey after 10 days after the event were more likely to use more words and explain the emotions they were experiencing when the event took place. The independent variable was the amount of time each person completed the questionnaire after the attack and the dependent variable was the emotions that each participant conveyed while describing their memories related to the event. The control group was the group of participants re-tested 7 months later.

The study was conducted with the use of questionnaires either 4 to 24 hours after the event or 10 days after the event. The participants were split up randomly and they each completed a questionnaire that collected their memories and had them reflect on their emotions they were feeling during and after the event took place. The results showed that the group that completed the questionnaire 10 days later used more words and described their emotions in more detail compared to the group who were tested 4 to 24 hours after. It was also found that participants that completed the questionnaire 10 days after the attack used significantly more words than participants that were re-tested 7 months later. This idea was supported by the fact that after a traumatic event, we need time to reflect on what happened and develop the feelings that were perceived during the time of the event. It also shows that people generate more feelings and emotions after the initial shock of the event, but flashbulb memories do tend to degrade over time, which explains the reason for more words being used to describe emotion 10 days after rather than 7 months. The hypothesis was supported that the group who completed the survey after 10 days of the event were more likely to explain their responses in more detail and describe more emotion. The participants were treated ethically. There were no physical tests on the participants and no harm was done to them. They simply had to fill out a survey that generated the feelings about the attack; the results depended on how long after the attack they completed it to determine how flashbulb memories generate emotions at the time of the attack and as time goes on after it.

This study was strong in terms that it was not a laboratory experiment which allowed the participants to thoroughly recall their feelings about the attack without the feeling of being observed during an experimental study in a lab. The study also had their conclusions to support their hypothesis and their findings. The study fell short in terms that this study only tested one type of memory which was flashbulb memories. If the study tested more than one type of memory then the findings would support other hypotheses related to how people recall events and their recollections. For future research, I suggest that the researchers continue with the method of testing that they used in this study, but use more variables to be tested that can relate to one study instead of doing multiple.

The secondary article, Emotion, Memory, and Attention in the Taboo Stroop Paradigm: An Experimental Analogue of Flashbulb Memories, explains a study that was conducted to test how emotional events were recalled. It was found that traumatic events were found to be described in more detail and resembled an image that was being conveyed as participants described them. This study also found that emotionally charged memories that were experienced were explained in extreme detail and were described very vividly with imagelike descriptions that are unusual for ordinary memories. These two articles had the same findings and resulted that flashbulb memories are explained in more detail shortly after the event and are described more vividly compared to explaining events that happened over a longer period of time. It was found that flashbulb memories tend to stick with us longer than regular memories do. It takes time for use to generate all the feelings that were felt during a flashbulb memory, but if this amount of time is too prolonged then our memories become distorted and we may forget parts of the event that we wouldn’t have forgotten about if we recalled them sooner after the event took place. The two articles were different in terms that the secondary article tested flashbulb memories and recognition memories. The secondary article used a test that consisted of participants that had to recall the location of colored words, some words were emotional and others were not which lead to the finding that participants recalled the more emotional words compared to the non emotional words. This finding relates to the fact that flashbulb memories are remembered more vividly because of the amount of emotion they contain.

I would recommend that both the articles include tests that involve different kinds of memories to see how they all play a role in how people recall events or situations. I learned a lot about this research. It became more clear to me that the longer amount of time from when an event took place, the more it becomes distorted in our memories. I also learned that it takes time for memories to fully develop after witnessing an event. The more time we have to think about and relive the memory gives us a better understanding of what happened. It also gives us time to form emotions about how we feel and analyze the details that just took place within an event.


  1. Duntley, J., Shaffer, L., & Merrens, M. R. (2008). Research stories for introductory psychology.
  2. Boston: Pearson Education.
  3. Lee, P. J., & Brown, N. R. (2003). Delay related changes in personal memories for September 11,
  4. 2001. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(9), 1007–1015. doi: 10.1002/acp.982
  5. Mackay, D. G., & Ahmetzanov, M. V. (2005). Emotion, Memory, and Attention in the Taboo
  6. Stroop Paradigm. Psychological Science, 16(1), 25–32. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00776.x
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