8.11 Flashbulb Memory in Psychology: Definition & Examples

Jan 14, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch8 How the Brain Stores & Recalls Information

Flashbulb memories are burned into your brain when you learn of traumatic happenings, but are they really as accurate as they seem? In this lesson, you will learn what shapes a flashbulb memory and explore some examples from the real world.

What Is Flashbulb Memory?

For many Americans, September 11, 2001, is a date that holds particular significance. It is, of course, the day Islamic terrorists simultaneously crashed four planes in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Most adults can easily remember when this happened, but are they really remembering the attacks themselves or are they remembering hearing about the attacks? It should go without saying that people cannot realistically remember an experience they didn’t actually witness, so what are they remembering?

In many cases, when a person says they remember something like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination happening, what they really mean is they remember learning about the event after it happened. In psychology, these are called flashbulb memories, which are memories of learning something so shocking or surprising that it creates a strong and seemingly very accurate memory of learning about the event–but not the event itself.

The name refers to the old process of taking a photo. When the photographer snapped the picture, the flashbulb would go off, thus indicating a moment in time that had been captured exactly as it appeared before him.

For example, on September 11, 2001, I could tell you exactly where I was, what I was doing, and from whom I first learned about the attacks in New York. In fact, I could give you a fairly descriptive timeline of my actions from morning until evening, which I’m able to recall with great clarity. What I don’t particularly recall, however, is seeing any footage of the attacks or learning about any of specifics until the following days.

My inability to recall video footage of the terrorist attacks or any of the specifics is due to the fact that flashbulb memories are autobiographical memories. These types of memories are characterized as highly personal memories of how a fact or event is related to you. In autobiographical memories, the primary focus is on the individual, and everything else is secondary.

What Makes Them Different?

Each type of memory is formed, recalled, or reconstructed in its own way. The emotional arousal experienced during the time of the event is what makes flashbulb memories so strong. For example, when a person first learns about the death of a loved one, the sadness felt at that moment is so strong that the memory gets etched in a little deeper than other memories and are stored in the mind forever.

As vivid as they may seem, particularly around major traumatic events, the clarity of the memory is mostly specific to five things:

  1. Where you were: It is not uncommon for a person to say ‘I remember where I was when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot’ or ‘I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot.’ This is because place is one of the things that flashbulb memories etch in very deeply.
  2. Activity: Remember when I said that I can recall my timeline on 9/11 with unusual clarity? That’s because what a person is doing when they first learn surprising or traumatic news is also burned in very strongly.
  3. Who told you: In flashbulb memories, the source of the information becomes a prominent piece of the memory. Whether it was a news anchor or a friend, that person will become as essential as the news itself.
  4. Affect: One of the more interesting pieces of a flashbulb memory is the individual’s affect and the affect of the person providing the information. Affect is a person’s expression and articulation of their emotions. For example, people who remember the first news reports of Kennedy’s assassination might also remember a visibly upset Walter Cronkite delivering the news on CBS or how their parents expressed their emotions when delivering the news.
  5. Aftermath: This refers to what happened immediately after the person received the shocking news. Many grade-school children, for example, watched the launching and subsequent explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 and can vividly recall the mood and events that followed, such as an assembly or cancellation of class.

Accuracy

When it comes to flashbulb memories, researchers suggest the forgetting curve, or the rate at which memories decline, is much less affected by the passage of time. This means flashbulb memories stay in the mind much longer and can be recalled with much more precision than other memories. It is believed that flashbulb memories begin to decline around three months after the event and level out around a year later, at which point they remain the same.

Though it’s true flashbulb memories are recalled with greater clarity than most other memories, they may not be as accurate as people believe them to be. Researchers suggest because these events are important to individuals, they’re frequently retold over time, which makes them seem strong, but does not necessarily correlate to accuracy. This is particularly true of positive flashbulb memories, which are perceived as having fewer or no consequences, which allows for them to decline or distort at a faster rate.

Lesson Summary

In psychology, flashbulb memories are personal memories of learning shocking or upsetting news which can be recalled with considerable clarity. Although these are often related to an event, they are autobiographical memories, where the focus is on the individual and not the event. One of the reasons that flashbulb memories are so strong is because of the emotional arousal caused by hearing the news, which makes the memory become etched into the mind much stronger than other memories might be.

In general, flashbulb memories include a strong emphasis on five specific characteristics, including the affect (a person’s expression and articulation of their emotions) of the person learning the news and of the person reporting the news. Although flashbulb memories are less affected by the forgetting curve (the rate at which memories decline) than other memories, they are often not as accurate as people believe and can be influenced by a number of things, such as repeated retellings.

Characteristics of Flashbulb Memories

  • Where you were: people tend to vividly remember their location when they heard the news
  • Activity: the person’s memory of what they were doing at the time is also strongly remembered
  • Who told you: the person who relays the information becomes an important part of the memory
  • Affect: the person remembers their emotions and the emotions of the person giving the news
  • Aftermath: the memory of what happened immediately after is also strong

Learning Outcomes

This lesson should teach you to:

  • Define flashbulb memory, autobiographical memory, and forgetting curve
  • Identify and describe the five characteristics of flashbulb memories that are remembered especially clearly
  • Explain the expected accuracy of flashbulb memories
8.12 Schacter's Seven Memory Distortions
8.10 Types of Forgetting & Memory Decay