Collective Memory of Political Events: Social Psychological Perspectives

By James W. Pennebaker; Dario Paez et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
When Individual Memories Are Socially Shaped: Flashbulb Memories of Sociopolitical Events

Catrin Finkenauer Lydia Gisle Olivier Luminet University of Louvain, Belgium

Until the late 1970s, memory was viewed as an essentially individual possession. A significant turning point in this way of thinking was advanced by Neisser ( 1978), who argued that memory, as it occurs in everyday life, was powerfully influenced by social factors. Indeed, social processes have now been demonstrated to affect encoding, retrieval, and the maintenance of memories. Memory, then, may best be considered a social rather than an individual faculty ( Bartlett, 1932; see Edwards & Middelton, 1986).

A particularly intriguing phenomenon in this context is that of flashbulb (FB) memories ( Brown & Kulik, 1977). FB memories are distinctly vivid, precise, concrete, long-lasting memories of the personal circumstances surrounding people's discovery of shocking events, such as assassinations of public figures. That is, people remember with almost perceptual clarity details of the context in which they first heard about the news, such as what they were doing, with whom, and where they were. Even though FB memories are not as accurate or permanent as the photographic metaphor suggests ( Neisser & Harsch, 1993), their forgetting curve is far less affected by time than is the case for other types of memories investigated in basic memory research (e.g., Bohannon & Symons, 1992).

To explain FB memories' superiority in recall, it is assumed that certain characteristics of the discovery situation lead to strong associations between the actual news and the surrounding details of the context in which the person learns about the news. In the debate as to whether memory is a social or individual faculty, FB memories represent an interesting case. On the one

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