Flashbulb Memory Psychology Essay Prompt

I remember as a kid that my parents shared vivid memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  They could tell me where they were and who they were with when they found out the president had been shot.

In 1977, Roger Brown and James Kulik called memories like this flashbulb memories.  They argued that important traumatic events are stored in a complete and vivid way that captures the context, the event, and the emotional reaction to it.  The idea is that when something very dangerous or emotional happens, there may not be time in the moment to analyze exactly what happened. By storing a vivid memory of the situation, the individual can re-examine it later and learn from it to avoid potentially dangerous situations again in the future.

Since this influential paper was published, psychologists have wondered about the accuracy of these memories.  Brown and Kulik looked at the characteristics of memories for past events.  They looked in detail at the assassination of Martin Luther King, but also gathered data about other assassination attempts and personal unexpected shocks from the past. 

People are highly confident about their flashbulb memories.  They feel as though all of the details have been preserved.  But, research on memory suggests that confidence is misleading.  These studies did not allow the researchers to assess the accuracy of the memories.

Since then, whenever there are unexpected tragedies, psychologists have rushed to get statements from people about their immediate memories for the events and have tried to follow up with them later.

A fascinating example of this research was published in a paper in the June, 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by 17 authors who include a number of leading memory researchers.  These researchers sent our memory surveys immediately after the airplane attacks on 9/11/01.  They sent out follow-up surveys to participants after one, three, and ten years.  Although they have quite a bit of data from the first few surveys, only about 200 people filled out all four surveys.

Still, the results are quite interesting.  All survey participants still had memories of how they found out about the event, who they were with, what they were doing, how they felt, the first person they talked to and what they were doing before finding out about the attack.  That means that all of the survey participants had memories that would quality as a flashbulb memory.  They were generally highly confident in the memory as well.

Despite their memory confidence, when the details of their memories were compared to the initial survey taken within10 days of 9/11, there were significant inconsistencies.  A year after the event, only about 2/3 of what people remembered was accurate.  This accuracy did not dip much lower after that, and by 10 years after 9/11, people were still about 60% accurate. 

Thus, although flashbulb memories are not like videos of the event, they are probably more accurate than memories for most events that took place 10 years before.

People also had reasonably good memory for core events relating to 9/11 such as the number of planes involved and the crash sites.  Their memories for more peripheral facts (like where Pres. Bush was during the attacks and the airlines of the planes used) were remembered less well.  People often remembered these facts later if they were exposed to media reports and movies that featured this information.

One other interesting facet of these memories is that if someone added an incorrect detail into their memory for the event, that misinformation was likely to be repeated in later accounts rather than corrected.  This suggests that one reason why flashbulb memories remain so vivid for people is that they are recalled over time.  Extra information that emerges when someone recalls a memory can get incorporated into that memory later.

This study fits with a growing body of work suggesting that the experience of flashbulb memories is a real one.  It happens both for public events that are shocking (like 9/11) as well as personal events.  Although the memories are highly vivid (which leads to a sense of confidence that the memory is accurate), there are significant inconsistencies in most people’s memories. 

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  • Introduce topic by explaining it in terms of the cognitive level of analysis and emotion 
    • The cognitive level of analysis aims to study the inner processes of the mind and how cognitive processes guide behaviour.
    • As such, within this level of analysis, emotion has been investigated in terms of its cognitive influences. 
  • Introduce theory of emotion 
    • One theory of how emotion may affect the cognitive process of memory is Flashbulb Memory (FBM) suggested by Brown & Kulik (1977). 
      • Theory of FBM involves how emotion affects memory by enhancing it. 
      • According tLe Doux, the arousal of emotion can facilitate the memory of events that occur during the aroused state; however, even though these emotional memories are emotions evoked by a particular event, the memories may not always be correct. (MOVE TO EVALUATION) 
  • Define Flashbulb Memory (FBM) 
    • Flashbulb Memories is a special kind of emotional memory, which refers to vivid and detailed (photographic-like) memories of highly emotional events that appear to be recorded in the brain as though with the help of a ‘camera’s flash.’ 
  • Explain the FBM 
    • Brown & Kulik (1977) also argued that the special biological memory mechanism of FBM is triggered when an individual usually encounters significant, often unexpected and emotional events or experiences (that has had exceeded levels of surprise and emotion) therefore creating a FBM of the immediate experiences surrounding the highly emotional (happy) experience or traumatic event. (*) 
    • FBM theory also have unique features distinguishing/that differ them from other memories in that they are more vivid, detailed, accurate, long-lasting, consistent and easily to remember. This is in contrast to normal memories, which most researchers are believed to be selective, unreliable and malleable (easily changed or distorted). 
  • *Give an example 
    • Some events stand out in the memory much more than others.
      • When the event happens, the person experiences a highly emotional state, extreme happiness, extreme sadness, etc. The result is that this event is imprinted on the memory. 
    • It can be personal or something that provokes worldwide interest, such as the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 or the death of Prince Diana in 1997. 

Main Study: Brown and Kulik (1977) 
Introduction of study  link to question: 

  • FBM was firstly demonstrated by Brown and Kulik in their main study occurring in 1977. 


  • To investigate FBM and how it works (to support their theory). 


  • Interviewed 80 Americans 
    • 40 African Americans 
    • 40 Caucasian Americans 
  • Had to answer questions about 10 events 
    • 9 of these events were mostly on assassinations or attempted assassinations of well-known American personalities
    • The last event was self-selected of personal events that included self-shock 
  • They were asked how much they rehearsed these events (overtly or covertly) 
    • Overly: rehearsal by discussing with other people 
    • Covertly: private rehearsing or ruminating 


  • They found that J.F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 led to the most flashbulb memories of all participants (90% of participants recalled this in context and with vivid detail) 
  • African Americans recalled more FBM's of civil right leaders; e.g. the assassination of Martin Luther King more than the Caucasians recalled it (as a FBM) 
  • For the tenth event (which was self-selected) most participants recalled shocking events like the death of a parent 


  • This study carried out by Brown and Kulik (1977) supported the theories of flashbulb memories whereby they were: 
    • Form in situations where we encounter surprising and highly emotional information 
    • Are maintained by means of overt rehearsal (discussion with others) and covert rehearsal 
    • (private) 
    • Differ from other memories in that they are more vivid, last longer and are more consistent and accurate 
    • Require for their creation the involvement of a specialized neural mechanism which stores information permanently in a unique memory system 


  • State explanation of FBM in terms of how emotion can affect memory
    • FBM can be explained in how emotion can affect/influence memory by either enhancing it or impairing it. 
      • Enhanced memory leads to more vivid memories of the event (FBM) Impairing memory leads to 
      • Repression due to traumatic events
        • Repression is used to describe a certain type of memory, usually of a traumatic type, when information cannot be retrieved as a result of being locked out of our consciousness.
      • Mood dependent memory and depressive state 

  • Thus, outline --> state the purpose of your essay 
    • As such, this essay response will aim to evaluate FBM, with the use of supporting or studies or studies which oppose certain components of the FBM in order to uncover the validity of the theory.  


  • State FBM theory component 1 
    • According tBrown and Kulik (1977), the event must be surprising and have real consequences for the person’s life. 

  • Outline evidence for this theoretical component of FBM 
    • Some studies have indicated that childhood memories with high emotional context, such as high school graduation can be as vivid and clear as flashbulb memories of less personal importance, such as national events, e.g. Rubin & Kuzin (1984). 

  • State FBM theory component 2 
    • Brown and Kulik also suggested that there may be a special neural mechanism which triggers an emotional arousal because the emotional event is unexpected or extremely important. 

  • Outline supporting evidence for this theoretical component of FBM 
    • At the time, it was only a hypothesis, but it is supported by modern neuroscience: in that emotional events are better remembered than less emotional events – perhaps because of the critical role of the amygdala. 

  • Outline arguing evidence for this theoretical component of FBM that the creation of FBM requires the involvement of a specialized neural mechanism which stores information permanently in a unique memory system 
    • Hard to identify (hasn't been identified)
    • How do we know about this (any evidence)
    • Further research and testings required to prove /support this theory 

  • State FBM theory component 3 
    • They also believed that this is a special type of memory because of the detail and accuracy with which the event is remembered and the fact that the structural form of the memory is always so similar. 

Evidence supporting Flashbulb Memory 

Supporting Study 1: Conway et al (1994) “UK and non-UK on Flashbulb Memory” 

Introduce study --> link to question 
  • There has been some research untFBM such as by Conway et al. (1994).
  • To test the theory of Flashbulb Memory
  • Participants were either UK or non-UK undergraduates 
  • Was based on the resignation of Margaret Thatcher (British Prime Minister,1990) 
  • Participants were asked and interviewed about the event a few days after the event 
  • They were asked again 11 months after the event 
  • They found that 86% of UK participants still had FBM of the resignation of Margaret Thatcher 
  • While there were fewer non-UK participants (29%) had flashbulb memories of the event 
  • Thus, Conway claimed that this event met the criteria for FBM for British people as it was an unexpected and highly significant event pertaining to their culture, therefore arousing deep emotions, influencing the special neural mechanisms and therefore creating FBM of the event.
  • Strengths :
    • Ecologically Valid: real event 
    • Interview: in depth qualitative data
      • Not focussed (don't have specific questions Questionnaire) o
  • Limitations
    • Distress in having to remember a tragic event 
    • Some methodology was not controlled
Connection of study to question
  • Suggests that flashbulb memories exist and are different from normal memories 
  • However, they may only exist for events with personal significance 

Evidence arguing against Flashbulb Memory 

Arguing Study 1: Neisser and Harsch (1992) 

Introduce study --> link to question 

  • One of the most significant research arguing the validity and accuracy of FBM is by Neisser (1982), and later on by Neisser and Harsch (1992). 
  • Neisser questioned the idea of FBM’s, in which he suggested that the memories are so vivid because the event itself is rehearsed and reconsidered after the event. 
  • According tNeisser, FBM may simply be a narrative convention. He explained this idea by saying that flashbulb memories are governed by the conventions of a storytelling schema, following a specific structure. In other words, when we recount important events, we do by using conventional storytelling techniques. 
  • Neisser also argued that FBM’s are subject to the same types of inaccuracy and forgetting as any other memories. 
  • To investigate the accuracy of flashbulb memory
  • Participants were asked to report on the circumstances of their learning about the challenger space disaster on 1986. 
  • Neisser and Harsch investigated people’s memory accuracy of the incident 24 hours after the accident and then again two years later. 
  • 1 day after the disaster, 215 of the participants reported that they heard about the disaster on television 
  • Those that recalled 2 and a half years later, 45% said they heard it on T.V 
  • Clearly, their memories of how they learned the news about the challenger disaster changed over time 
  • Assuming that participants' memories were more accurate one day after the disaster, it can be concluded that their memories about how they had heard about the news had deteriorated significantly during the subsequent two and a half years.  o
  • Connection of study to question
    • This thus suggests that FBM are not reliable (as influenced by post-event information). 
    • Neisser and Harsch claimed that such findings suggest that FBM's may just be ordinary memories 

Arguing Study 2: Wright (1993) “Hillsborough Disaster and (5 months) recall 

Introduce study --> link to question: 
  • Another study investigating the accuracy of FBM was by Wright (1993)
  • To investigate the accuracy of FBM
  • Interviewed people about the Hillsborough disaster 
  • After 5 month he asked participants to recall what had happened at this event/disaster 
  • After five months, memories were vague, and subject to systematic biases. 
  • Found that memories were a blend of their own real experiences, and information that had come after the event. 
  • Thus concluding that flashbulb memory is no different to any other type of memory 
  • Shows that the memory that is “flashbulb” can decay over time, unlike as assumed 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study shows that FBM is no different than any other type of memory.

Arguing Study 3: McCloskey et al (1988) “Challenger Disaster and (9months) recall”

  • To test the accuracy of flashbulb memory
  • Participants were interviewed and asked questions about the explosion of the challenger a few days after 9 months 
  • Also asked on personal memories 
  • It was found that there were discrepancies over time between what was recalled shortly after the accident and what was remembered nine months later. 
  • There were inaccuracies in the memories. 
  • FBM can be forgotten and thus cannot be considered as a special memory, but are products of ordinary memory mechanisms.
  • Strengths:
    • The type of methodology used was interview thus questions asked in the experiment were not focused thus could vary from participant to participant
  • Weaknesses:
    • Ethics
    • Not ecologically valid because the Challenger was deemed not personal/emotional therefore not meeting the criterion of FBMs.

Connection of study to question
  • Does not support this theory of flashbulb memory 
    • Differ from other memories in that they are more vivid, last longer and are more consistent and accurate 
  • This study showed that flashbulb memories are not different as they don't last as long as assumed by Neisser. 


  • In conclusion, FBM (affected by emotion) can influence the recall of memories. 
    • However, it is hard to test accuracy of memories as the evidence is very retrospective
  • Overall Strengths: The majority of research into flashbulb memories is naturalistic. It all involves people’s
  • reactions and memories formed from real life events. Therefore there is high in ecological validity.
  • Overall Weaknesses: However, the studies can lack reliability as they cannot really be replicated. Therefore, we cannot test to see how consistent the results are. Also, much of the research is retrospective, and there is the issue that we cannot reliably measure how accurate people’s initial memories are.


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