In This Article Flashbulb Memories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Methodology
  • The Special Mechanism Theory
  • Phenomenology and Other Characteristics
  • Other Initiating Conditions/Predictors
  • Long Long-Term Memory
  • Culture and Social Identity
  • Across the Lifespan
  • Social Sharing
  • Neuroscientific Approaches
  • Event Memory

Psychology Flashbulb Memories
by
William Hirst, Jonathan Koppel, Robert Meksin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0071

Introduction

Flashbulb memories (FBMs) are memories for the circumstances in which one learned of a public, emotionally charged event. As Brown and Kulik noted in their seminal Flashbulb Memories (Brown and Kulik 1977, cited under General Overviews), FBMs are vivid, detailed, confidently held, and seemingly impervious to forgetting. Why, Brown and Kulik wondered, should people remember something of such little consequence—the event may be consequential but is the circumstance of learning of the event also consequential? Why should the quality of these memories be superior to that of ordinary autobiographical memories? FBMs are often contrasted with event memories (EMs), that is, memories for facts about the public event. In an attempt to answer these questions, psychologists have studied events of consequence to the general public, for example, assassinations, such as that of John F. Kennedy, public disasters, such as the Loma Prieta earthquake, and major political upheavals, such as the 9/11 terrorist attack. They have also investigated events consequential to only a small group of people, such as the death of a friend or relative. Researchers have mainly focused on two related issues: First, what are the mechanisms accounting for FBMs? For Brown and Kulik, the special quality of FBMs suggested that they involved special memory mechanisms, but they had no means of assessing at least one of the central features of FBMs that made them special: their seeming imperviousness to forgetting. Subsequent to Brown and Kulik, researchers have corrected this lacunae, collecting data about the circumstances of learning of an event shortly after it occurs and then after a substantial delay (sometimes years). At least with regard to the rate of forgetting, many researchers now claim that FBMs are more similar than they are different from ordinary autobiographical memories. They assert that it is unnecessary to posit a “special mechanism”—“ordinary” memory mechanisms will do. The second issue dominating discussion about FBMs concerns initiating conditions. Not all public, emotionally charged events lead to the formation of FBMs. Moreover, the means by which FBMs acquire their tell-tale characteristics may differ across memories. Why does an American remember, for instance, the circumstances of hearing about the attack of 9/11 but not the appointment of Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court? That is, why do people form FBMs for the former event but not the latter? Is there something special about the event that leads to an FBM? Does the encoding and retrieval of FBMs differ from the encoding and retrieval of the circumstances of learning of non-flashbulb events? What are the different routes that lead to the formation of an FBM? Questions such as these allow psychologists to explore how the processing underlying the formation and retention of FBMs might differ from ordinary autobiographical memories, assuming that no “special” mechanism is involved. More recent work has begun to examine EMs. Moreover, the public nature of flashbulb events has also led to a discussion about their relationship to social identity and the influence of culture.

General Overviews

The works cited here provide an excellent overview of the FBM phenomenon. The seminal FBM article is that of Brown and Kulik 1977, which described a questionnaire study in which participants were asked to report the circumstances in which they first learned of surprising, consequential public events, such as the iconic example of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Brown and Kulik sparked the first wave of FBM research over the next decade. Winograd and Neisser 1992, an edited volume, provides an excellent overview of this early FBM research, including chapters on FBMs for the Challenger explosion and critical analyses of the flashbulb memory hypothesis, that is, Brown and Kulik’s claim that FBMs are a product of special memory processes. Conway 1995 provides another useful, book-length survey of early FBM research, reviewing the work conducted to that point and focusing on the evidence both for and against the flashbulb memory hypothesis. Several years after Conway 1995, Pillemer 1998 argued that, though it may seem paradoxical that we form such vivid memories for simply learning of important events, FBMs in fact serve important memory functions. The decade following Pillemer 1998 saw a surge in FBM research, spurred in part by the terrorist attack of 9/11, which provided fertile ground for FBM studies. Luminet and Curci 2009, an edited volume that includes contributions from many leading FBM researchers, updates Winograd and Neisser 1992 and provides an excellent overview of the state of affairs following this period of intense activity. One important chapter in Luminet and Curci 2009 is Pillemer 2009, which reviews the ways in which FBMs, as memories of events that are not experienced directly, possess a unique set of properties. Schmidt 2012 advances the field by including FBMs in a broader theoretical account of why we form particularly vivid memories for some types of events, including not only FBMs, but also those such as memories for emotional events and memory for humor. Lastly, although most FBM studies have looked at events that affect large groups, such as nations, we should note that several researchers have examined FBMs for events affecting smaller groups, such as a family or a circle of friends. Articles addressing memory for such events include Mahmood, et al. 2004 and Mackay and Bluck 2010.

  • Brown, R., and J. Kulik. 1977. Flashbulb memories. Cognition 5.1: 73–99.

    DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-XE-mail Citation »

    The seminal documentation of the FBM phenomenon, reporting on a study in which many consequential, surprising events were found to yield FBMs in a high proportion of participants. The authors present the flashbulb memory hypothesis, but they were subsequently criticized for implying that FBMs are unerringly accurate (see Neisser 1982, cited under Phenomenology and Other Characteristics).

  • Conway, M. A. 1995. Flashbulb memories. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    E-mail Citation »

    Conway presents a useful review and evaluation of FBM research to that point. He focuses particularly on the evidence to date regarding the flashbulb memory hypothesis, giving an even-handed account of both sides of the argument.

  • Luminet, O., and A. Curci, eds. 2009. Flashbulb memories: New issues and new perspectives. New York: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume represents an invaluable update to Winograd and Neisser 1992. Important contributions include Luminet’s chapter on the competing models of FBM formation, Talarico and Rubin’s chapter on the mechanisms underlying FBMs, Berntsen’s chapter on FBMs and social identity, and Pillemer 2009.

  • Mackay, M. M., and S. Bluck. 2010. Meaning-making in memories: A comparison of memories of death-related and low point life experiences. Death Studies 34.8: 715–737.

    DOI: 10.1080/07481181003761708E-mail Citation »

    Mackay and Bluck extend FBM research to events affecting only small groups of people by looking at meaning-making in death-related memories, such as one’s memory of the death of a parent.

  • Mahmood, D., D. Manier, and W. Hirst. 2004. Memory for how one learned of multiple deaths from AIDS: Repeated exposure and distinctiveness. Memory & Cognition 32.1: 125–134.

    DOI: 10.3758/BF03195825E-mail Citation »

    Just as Mackay and Bluck 2010 look at memories for more private events than those that are typically the subject of FBM research, Mahmood, et al. do the same here, in examining gay men’s FBMs for friends who had died of AIDS.

  • Pillemer, D. B. 1998. Momentous events, vivid memories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pillemer provides a functional analysis of why we form vivid memories of momentous events from our lives, including FBMs, in arguing that such memories help us learn from experience and form a meaningful life story.

  • Pillemer, D. B. 2009. “Hearing the news” versus “being there”: Comparing flashbulb memories and recall of first-hand experiences. In Flashbulb memories: New issues and new perspectives. Edited by O. Luminet and A. Curci, 125–140. New York: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this chapter, Pillemer delineates some of the unique properties of FBMs, compared to memories of events that are experienced directly, providing a comprehensive review of research to date addressing the issue.

  • Schmidt, S. R. 2012. Extraordinary memories for exceptional events. New York: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Schmidt provides a broad theoretical account of why some types of memories stand out as being particularly vivid. He includes in his discussion not only FBMs, but also memories for emotional events, memories for bizarre imagery, and memory for humor.

  • Winograd, E., and U. Neisser, eds. 1992. Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511664069E-mail Citation »

    The first edited volume on FBMs, presenting a comprehensive survey of the early FBM research. One highlight is Neisser and Harsch’s landmark study demonstrating high levels of inconsistency in FBMs for the Challenger explosion, contrary to the implications in Brown and Kulik 1977 regarding the accuracy of FBMs.

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