Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Distinct Processes Shape Flashbulb and Event Memories

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Distinct Processes Shape Flashbulb and Event Memories

Article excerpt

Published online: 12 November 2013

© The Author(s) 2013. This article is published with open access at

Abstract In the present study, we examined the relation between memory for a consequential and emotional event and memory for the circumstances in which people learned about that event, known as flashbulb memory. We hypothesized that these two types of memory have different determinants and that event memory is not necessarily a direct causal determinant of flashbulb memory. Italian citizens (N = 352) described their memories of Italy's victory in the 2006 FootballWorld Cup Championship after a delay of 18months. Structural equation modeling showed that flashbulb memory and event memory could be clearly differentiated and were determined by two separate pathways. In the first pathway, importance predicted emotional intensity, which, in turn, predicted the frequency of overt and covert rehearsal. Rehearsal was the only direct determinant of vivid and detailed flashbulb memories. In the second pathway, importance predicted rehearsal by media exposure, which enhanced the accuracy and certainty of event memory. Event memory was also enhanced by prior knowledge. These results have important implications for the debate concerning whether the formation of flashbulb memory and event memory involve different processes and for understanding how flashbulb memory can be simultaneously so vivid and so error-prone.

Keywords Flashbulbmemory * Eventmemory * Public events * Autobiographical memory

Walking the streets of a large Italian city at 10:40 PM on July 9, 2006, no one is around, and a mysterious silence enshrouds the city. Behind the windows, blue light flickers. Suddenly, an immense, unitary cry of joy pierces the silence. People flood the streets, honking car horns, setting offfirecrackers, waving Italian tricolor flags, and chanting. A celebration explodes that will last the whole night everywhere in Italy: The Italian National Team had won the 2006 World Cup Football Championship. How did Italians appraise this event? How did they feel about it? A year and a half later, what would they remember about it? In the present study, we examined a positive flashbulb memory. We examined the factors that shaped people's memories of both the event itself and the circumstances in which they had learned about it. The aims were to determine whether event memory and flashbulb memory have different determinants, and thus different characteristics, shedding light on the enduring puzzle of why flashbulb memories often combine inaccuracy with striking vividness and subjective certainty.

Autobiographical memory and emotion: The concept of flashbulb memory

Autobiographical memory refers to the maintenance of selfrelated information, especially experiences that are indispensable to our identities (Baddeley, 1990; Brewer, 1986). In Conway's model (e.g., Conway, 2005; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000), autobiographical memory includes information at three levels of specificity: lifetime periods (e.g., "When I was at university"), general events (e.g., "Our trip to Florence"), and event-specific knowledge (e.g., "When I saw Botticelli's Allegory of Spring at the Uffizi Gallery"). Flashbulb memories fall into Conway's third category, eventspecific knowledge, and consist of representations of personal experience (e.g., "I remember seeing Messi score a goal") rather than semantic knowledge (e.g., "I know that Messi scored a goal"). Proposed more than 30 years ago by R. Brown and Kulik (1977), the concept of "flashbulb memories" refers to detailed, long-lasting, and vivid memories of the personal circumstances in which people first heard about an unexpected, consequential, and emotion-arousing event. Some researchers have argued that flashbulb memories do not comprise a distinct subtype of episodic memory with special characteristics, and that the term has outlived its usefulness (e.g., McCloskey, Wible, & Cohen, 1988). …

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