Search No Faint Hearts


Thursday, March 01, 2012

Investigative Activity: September 11

I was a senior in college, working the morning shift at Alabama Public Radio. As usual, we had the morning news on the television, and we saw the news reports almost immediately. But I had a 9:00 class, and, not knowing what all was happening, I went and learned my professor's brother-in-law was in one of the towers. We later found out he was one of the almost 3,000 who died in the September 11 attacks.

Being a journalism major, my professors continued to hold classes that day, encouraging us to learn from the tragedy while also providing a source of comfort and support. As everyone probably does, I have flashes of memories--sitting on my bed in the dorm watching the footage again and again, talking with friends and family on the phone, and wondering how our country would respond.

Even now--more than 10 years later--those memories are so vivid, I think they must be accurate. But are they? If I had kept a journal of that day, how would my memories line up now?

That is the topic of this third investigative activity where we look at "flashbulb memories," those that are so strong they play in our minds almost like a movie, the ones where people ask, "Where were you when..." It's troubling, in a way, to think that our memories--even these incredibly vivid ones--might not be accurate, but that is what these researchers found.

The Lee and Brown (2003) article discussed a study of almost 1,500 college students, divided into two groups, one of which was tested within 24 hours after September 11, 2001. The other was tested ten days after the event. About ten percent of the students were then tested again the following April. Researchers investigated the changes in participants’ “flashbulb memories” and found that there were some differences in recall between the two different testing times. Most of these differences were related to “the amount of contextual information that people recall, the details they report, or relationship between affect and memory,” rather than “consistency between test and retest.”

Lee and Brown (2003) offer several possible explanations for this, referencing how well major news events such as September 11 are encoded due to repeated rehearsal, the effects of emotion on “pruning extraneous information,” and post-event experiences. The researchers found that these memories, like others, are susceptible to influence and, as the text suggests, constructive.

Similarly, Talarico and Rubin (2003) found that flashbulb memories are no more consistent or accurate than everyday memories. “Instead, exaggerated belief in memory’s accuracy at long delays, belief that is unrelated to true memory consistency, is what may have led to the conviction, even among some researchers, that flashbulb memories are more accurate than everyday memories,” regardless of whether they are consistent.

As the text points out as well, the same memory processes are in effect for both flashbulb memories as well as everyday memories. Therefore, they are subject to the same degradation, rehearsal, and other influences on encoding that can affect their consistency over time.

Whether flashbulb or everyday, false and inaccurate memories are common. When emotion plays a larger part in a particular memory, such as that of September 11, the stakes perhaps seem higher to us that we remember accurately. As Talarico and Ruben (2003) show, though, confidence does not equal consistency, and flashbulb memories will not necessarily remain the same as when they were initially encoded.

Lee, P. and Brown, N. (2003). Delay related changes in personal memories for September 11, 2001. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 1007-1015.

Talarico, J. and Rubin, D. (2003). Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological Science, 14(5), 455-461.

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