Memories of the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001: A Study of the Consistency and Phenomenal Characteristics of Flashbulb Memories

By Romeu, Pilar Ferré | The Spanish Journal of Psychology, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Memories of the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001: A Study of the Consistency and Phenomenal Characteristics of Flashbulb Memories


Romeu, Pilar Ferré, The Spanish Journal of Psychology


In this study, I investigated students' memories of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, carried out by Al Qaeda terrorists against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Participants completed on two occasions (2 weeks and 8 months after the events took place) a memory questionnaire that included an assessment of the phenomenal richness of their memories. The results showed that the participants remembered very well the circumstances in which they first heard about the terrorist attacks, that they were very confident about this information, and that these memories were characterized by a high phenomenal richness. Over time, there was a decrease in all of these variables, but people's ratings of phenomenology and confidence were still very high.

Keywords: flashbulb memories, phenomenal characteristics, confidence, consistency

En este estudio se investigaron los recuerdos que tenían estudiantes de los ataques terroristas del 11 de septiembre de 2001, llevados a cabo por terroristas de Al Qaeda contra el World Trade Center en Nueva York y el Pentágono en Washington. En dos ocasiones diferentes (2 semanas y 8 meses después de los sucesos) los participantes rellenaron un cuestionario de memoria que incluía una evaluación de la riqueza fenomenológica de sus recuerdos. Los resultados mostraron que los participantes recordaban muy bien las circunstancias en las que se enteraron de los ataques terroristas, que tenían mucha confianza en esta información, y que estos recuerdos se caracterizaban por una gran riqueza fenomenológica. Con el paso del tiempo, había un decremento en todas estas variables pero las valoraciones de las personas de la fenomenología y la confianza se mantenían muy altas.

Palabras clave: recuerdos "flashbulb", características fenomenológicas, confianza, consistencia

In a pioneer study, Brown and Kulik (1977) asked people to recall the circumstances in which they first heard of several surprising and impressive events that had taken place between 10 and 30 years earlier (e.g., the death of President John F. Kennedy). They found that most people were able to provide vivid descriptions of these circumstances. Also, some aspects of the circumstances appeared repeatedly in the participants' reports. These included: where the participants were when they first heard the news, what they were doing, who they were with, their own emotional response, other people's emotional responses, the source of the news, and what they did after they heard the news.

Brown and Kulik (1977) used the term "flashbulb memories" to refer to these vivid memories. According to the authors, flashbulb memories are vivid, detailed, and longlasting memories of the circumstances in which people first learned about shocking public events. They also offered the first theoretical explanation for the formation and maintenance of such memories. They hypothesized that flashbulb memories are caused by a special memory mechanism that operates during encoding. They also stated that the kind of events capable of producing flashbulb memories must be new and unexpected, people must consider them important, or the events must have consequences for them. Surprise and consequentiality (which Brown and Kulik equated to emotional arousal) were therefore necessary for the formation of such memories. According to the authors, rehearsal (whether overt-i.e., talking about the event-or covert- i.e., thinking about it) also played an important role, as events with a high degree of surprise and consequentiality would be more frequently rehearsed.

Since Brown and Kulik's (1977) work, several studies have tried to identify the encoding and rehearsal factors that contribute to the formation of flashbulb memories. Among these factors are the intensity of people's emotional reactions to the news (Bohannon, 1988; Bohannon & Symons, 1992; Conway et al., 1994; Curci, Luminet, Finkenauer, & Gisle, 2001; Davidson & Glisky, 2002; Hornstein, Brown, & Mulligan, 2003; Pillemer, 1984; Rubin & Kozin, 1984; Schmolck, Buffalo, & Squire, 2000), surprise (Christianson, 1989; Cohen, Conway, & Maylor, 1994; Conway et al. …

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