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Flashbulb memories: confident blunders.

People often report vivid memories of what they thought and did just before, during, and after learning of a particularly startling event, such as the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 or the 1986 space shuttle explosion. Psychologists refer to such recollections as "flashbulb memories" and have theorized that the brain harbors a special mechanism that preserves mental photographs of experiences linked to extremely surprising and emotional incidents.

A new study, however, suggests that flashbulb memories give off a misleading sheen of precision.

"What makes flashbulb memories special, to a great extent, is the undue confidence people place in their accuracy," contends Charles A. Weaver III, a psychologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Weaver's assertion follows increasing skepticism regarding the infallibility of flashbulb memories (SN: 6/4/88, p.358). Many investigators now assume that such memories achieve various levels of accuracy and may change over time with exposure to new information, much as misleading suggestions can alter eyewitness memories. For example, college students who were asked both the day after the space shuttle disaster and three years later how they had learned of the tragedy often provided substantially different descriptions (SN: 2/2/91, p.78).

Unlike many previous studies, Weaver's experiment compared flashbulb memories to those associated with an everyday even. The Texas psychologist instructed a group of college students to do their best to remember all the circumstances surrounding their next meeting with a friend or roommate. Immediately following these incidents, participants wrote down answers to a questionnaire inquiring about what they did during the encounter, what time and where it took place, what clothes they wore, what they thought during the meeting, and who was there. Volunteers also rated the amount of emotion and surprise they felt during the meeting and their confidence in the accuracy of their memories.

By coincidence, on the same day students received the questionnaire - Jan. 16, 1991 - the United States began the bombing of Iraq that signaled the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. When students arrived at class two days later with their first set of completed questionnaires, Weaver administered a similar questionnaire asking about their memory of the bombing and the degree to which it had surprised and upset them.

A total of 22 students participated in the study, which included three-month and one-year follow-up questionnaires.

Assuming that participants' original memories were on the mark, memories of both events decreased comparably in accuracy three months later and held steady when assessed at one year, Weaver reports in the March Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The amount of detail correctly recalled after one year remained impressive, indicating that the decision to remember even a trivial event can make a big impact, he maintains.

Students consistently rated their confidence in memories of the bombing considerably higher than their confidence in memories of the personal meeting. However, greater confidence did not lead to markedly improved accuracy in recalling bombing-related events.

Rather than entering a special preservation system in the brain, flashbulb memories may serve as benchmarks in our lives that connect personal histories to cultural history Weaver suggests. People often choose to enshrine memories of individual experiences that provide a link to a significant public event; communications media then maintain the memory of the public event, inflating confidence in associated personal memories.

"In the future, these students will confidently report memories of where they were when the first war of their generation took place, but they may be no more accurate than memories for other personal events," Weaver concludes.
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Title Annotation:memories of startling events
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 13, 1993
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