What use are flashbulb memories?

MJ Memorial at London’s 02 Arena

It could be the time you heard about the 9/11 terror attacks, or the moment you discovered that Michael Jackson had died. “Flashbulb memory” is the term psychologists use for when we remember the details of what we were doing and where we were when we heard dramatic news. What’s the function of these memories, and is there any difference when the news is public or private, negative or positive?

Burcu Demiray and Alexandra Freund surveyed 565 US participants online about their memory of when they heard Michael Jackson had died and when they heard Osama Bin Laden had been killed. These were used as examples of a negative and positive flashbulb memory of a public event, respectively. For comparison, the participants were also quizzed about a time they heard that they, or a relative, had become pregnant, and a time they heard that a relative had fallen ill or passed away (a positive and negative private flashbulb memory, respectively).

In general, the flashbulb memories of receiving positive private news were “more important, consequential, emotionally intense, vivid, and frequently rehearsed” than the memories of hearing news about MJ’s or Bin Laden’s deaths. Moreover, participants said private flashbulb memories, positive and negative, played a more important role in supporting their stable sense of self over time, and in helping them solve current problems.

However, when it came to bonding with other people, it seems the the private /public distinction is not so important. For example, participants described memories of bad private news and memories of Michael Jackson’s death serving similar social functions, in terms of building rapport with other people and getting to know them better.

Other details to emerge: positive flashbulb memories, private and public, were perceived as psychologically closer, as if they’d happened more recently; and older participants (middle-aged and up) said flashbulb memories are less important for facilitating self-identity over time and less important for social bonding.

Overall, it was those flashbulb memories that participants said were most significant to them (usually their memories of receiving private news), that were associated with more functions, such as for self-identity and bonding with other people. In contrast, the self-reported detail of memories was not associated with their having more function.

“This suggests,” the researchers said, “that the functions of flashbulb memories are less about the shared societal reality and more about highly individual events shaping one’s private life.” This is an important finding for memory researchers because most studies on flashbulb memory have tended to focus on news of public events, such as the 9/11 attacks.

“Future research on the functions of flashbulb memories needs to focus more on individual, private memories,” the researchers said. A limitation of their study, which they acknowledged, is that they uncovered people’s beliefs about the function of flashbulb memories – it’s possible the actual functions of these memories is different.

Demiray, B., & Freund, A. (2015). Michael Jackson, Bin Laden and I: Functions of positive and negative, public and private flashbulb memories Memory, 23 (4), 487-506 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2014.907428

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.