Flashbulb Memories

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Describe flashbulb memories and discuss evidence on whether they are more accurate than other long-term memories. The term Flashbulb memory was first used by Brown & Kulik in 1977 (cited in McCloskey, Wible & Cohen, 1988). This flashbulb mechanism hypothesis states, that when triggered by a surprising, emotionally charged, significant event, a more vivid and lasting memory would be created than those created by everyday memory mechanisms. Examples of events that were supposed to trigger these memories in people included such events as the ‘Challenger’ Shuttle Explosion and the assassination of John. F. Kennedy, (Nairne 2009, p. 259).

People who experienced these flashbulb memories were believed to be confidently able to recall the details surrounding the event, such as where they were and who they were with etc, many years later. It was believed by McCloskey, Wible & Cohen (1988) that the emotional nature of these memories increased the person’s confidence in the accuracy of these memories. Kulik and Brown’s original hypothesis (1977, cited in McCloskey et al.), proposed that flashbulb memories should contain information about the subject’s personal circumstances, such as the location, the ongoing event, the informant and the emotional reaction of themselves and those around them. They further stated that for a memory to be deemed a flashbulb memory, these details needed to be recalled more accurately than any other content.

Some authors, such as Williams and Conway (2008, pp.21-90) describe flashbulb memory as one type of autobiographical memory. They explain it as a combination of episodic and semantic memory ie. a combination of personal experience surrounding people and events at a particular time and place, coupled with a general knowledge of worldly matters.

Research on flashbulb memory has created a dichotomy, with some researchers arguing in favour of a special flashbulb mechanism and others arguing against a separate mechanism, preferring instead to support a belief in a single mechanism used for both flashbulb and ordinary memory.

Brown & Kulik (1977, cited in Pillemar, 1990) argued that flashbulb memories were fixed for a long period of time and were permanent. They varied in complexity but once created, were there to stay. The claim of permanence, however, has been translated by critics to be synonymous with accuracy. Thus, memories, according to these critics, should contain the same reported identical details many years later. Others, however, believed that the hypothesis of Brown & Kulik did not require 100% accuracy for the hypothesis of a flashbulb memory mechanism to be credible.

Hornstein, Brown & Mulligan (2003) believed the reason for so much disagreement on the subject was largely due to the scarcity of shocking public events. They explained that a test-retest design was used by most researchers to test the validity of the hypothesis, where 2 sets of responses were collected; an initial response and a follow-up response at a much later date. This type of test was first used by Pillemar (1984) who examined subjects’ memories for the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life.

One of the earlier studies on Flashbulb memory was undertaken by McCloskey, Wible & Cohen (1988). On recognizing the different trains of thought in regard to Brown and Kulik’s theory McCloskey et al. argued a case against a separate flashbulb memory mechanism on the basis of the extreme view of flashbulb memory, which claimed that flashbulb memory should be accurate, vivid and immune from forgetting (1977, cited in McCloskey, Wible & Cohen, 1988). They believed this to be the extreme view of Brown & Kulik. They concluded that if this were the case then there would be a convincing argument for the existence of a special flashbulb mechanism but if the memories were not perfectly vivid, accurate and resistant to forgetting then the claim of a special flashbulb memory mechanism would be...
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