It is not surprising that humans cannot always rely on their memory. However, everyone has certain memories which are too vivid to be inaccurate. People can recall these memories as clearly as if the event happened the day before. But are those memories actually so reliable?
What are flashbulb memories?
Flashbulb memories are vivid memories which form in case of shocking events that have a powerful emotional impact on people. The intensity of the events makes people be confident that they can remember accurately a great number of details. That can happen even after a longer passage of time. These events can be both public or personal, positive or negative.
Event memories consist in recalls about the actual occurrences. Flashbulb memories comprise details about the context in which the subjects learn about the events. This type of memories are also more consistent than regular ones. People are able to recall the circumstances in which they learned about the shocking events even many years after their occurrence.
Research on flashbulb memories
Researchers have studied flashbulb memories by analyzing a great number of public events which generated a powerful emotional response from witnesses. For example, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the election of Barack Obama or the explosion of the Challenger.
The 9/11 attacks received a great interest from researchers who studied flashbulb memories, with more than 20 studies conducted.
In one study, about 200 participants completed a survey about the events witnessed after one, three and ten years. Firstly, the participants completed the survey shortly after the event, when they were emotionally engaged. They were able to report the “who, what, when and where” of the event. People later compared these first surveys to the recollections made after one, three and ten years. The researchers were aware that some participants may have reported certain aspects incorrectly even when completing the survey the first time. That’s especially because they were so emotionally engaged. However, the aim of the study was not to establish an accuracy score, but a consistency score. The central interest was to conclude whether traumatic events truly lead to a better preservation of details in people’s memory.
Flashbulb memories and long-term retention
When they first did the survey, the participants could describe in great detail their feelings, the people they were with or the activities they were doing. After ten days there already were significant differences in their stories. After a year, only two thirds of the participants remembered the events accurately. However, after ten years, the accuracy of their claims did not drop much lower. This means that the memories faded rapidly only within the first year and then they stabilized.
Errors and confidence
The researchers manifested interest not only in the errors of omission, but also in the errors of commission. Very few people overtly admitted not remembering certain aspects regarding the circumstances of the traumatic events. At the same time, the vast majority failed to realize that some details were erased from their memory. Those filled the gaps with inaccurate information. The confidence with which the people made the incorrect claims was very interesting. In case of regular memories, people tend to think twice when they are asked about who they were with on a certain date ten years before. In the case of flashbulb memories, they were absolutely certain of the accuracy of their affirmations. This happens because emotion intensifies the feeling of remembering without actually improving the accuracy of the memories.
Ironically enough, one of the aspects of the circumstances of the event that people misremembered the most is the feelings they experienced. A reason for this is people’s tendency to project their current emotions on previous ones. People’s emotions are constantly shifting during the years. Because of this, it is difficult for them to return to the initial emotional state.
Another interesting result was the fact that, in case people incorporated incorrect details in their flashbulb memories, these details were more likely to persist in further recalls than be corrected. This suggests that people recall flashbulb memories more often than regular memories, which also leads to them seeming more vivid.
Overall, even though the participants could elaborate a great number of details and the memories appeared vivid to them, the number of inconsistencies was significant, with a great number of errors even after the first year. Thus said, it may be time we start reconsidering the confidence with which we make certain affirmations and leave some room for doubt.
If you want to learn more about the ways in which our minds can sabotage us, I recommend reading about the Common Cognitive Biases that Shape our Perspective.