Flashbulb Memory Theory (Brown and Kulik, 1977)

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology, Studies and Theories 17 Comments

Most Americans born before 1955 will remember vivid details about when they heard JFK was shot. Do you have any flashbulb memories?

Flashbulb memories are memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event.” (Brown and Kulik, 1977).

For example, remembering where you were when you found out you got accepted into your dream college, that a loved one had passed away or a public news event like the death of a celebrity. This definition is important to remember, as many people mistakenly define FBMs as memories of an event. Remember, an FBM is not a memory of an event – it’s the memory of circumstances surrounding hearing news of the event.

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This theory can be used to show how emotion may affect cognition.

FBM theory claims that two significant factors lead to FBMs being created:

(a) a high level of surprise,

(b) high levels of emotion.

If these two variables are not present there won’t be FBM creation. This is because the surprise and emotion lead to increase rehearsal of the memory, both overtly (publicly) and covertly (internally). This rehearsal is what strengthens the memory.

This video explains FBM Theory and how emotion can affect cognition.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjzglgx-SRE]

The final claim of the theory is that there is a physiological process that facilitates the creation and consolidation of FBMs. Even though Brown and Kulik admitted in their original 1977 paper that there was limited evidence for this neuro-physiological correlation with FBMs, more modern research could provide some support for this claim.

Unbeliveable! Young Shocked Surprised Man In Glasses Looking On

I can vividly picture where I was when I was playing an online quiz game on Facebook ten years ago, when I found out Heath Ledger died as it was one of the quiz questions.

According to Brown and Kulik, FBMs often include these features:

  • the place where the news was heard (Place)
  • the person who supplied the information (Informant)
  • what they were doing at the time of hearing the news (Ongoing event)
  • their emotional state upon receiving the news (Own affect)
  • the emotional state of others (Affect of others)
  • the consequences of the event for the individual (aftermath)

To summarize, when describing FBM theory make sure you include:

  1. An accurate definition of an FBM
  2. An explanation of how surprise and emotion lead to increased rehearsal, thus forming the FBM.
  3. The neuro-physiological claim made in the theory.
  4. Some of the key details of memory that are recalled in an FBM

Brown, Roger, and James Kulik. “Flashbulb Memories.” Cognition, vol. 5, no. 1, 1977, pp. 73–99.

This video from our youtube channel will help show you how to use FBM to discuss how cultural factors can affect cognition.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWy6OUnFMek&w=560&h=315]

Comments 17

    1. they used questionnaires! on 80 participants to ask them if they recalled cricumstances where they had learned of shocking events

      1. I always worry when getting students to say what the method was, because I’m not sure that questionnaires are considered a “research method”.

  1. Pingback: Flashbulb Memory Theory (Brown and Kulik, 1977) — IB Psychology – THE BIG BUCK HUNTER 2018

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  3. If the questionnaire is given out in a controlled setting, isn’t the research method also a lab? I don’t really get the differences..

    1. The key to a laboratory (true) experiment is the fact that there is an independent and dependent variable and the researchers have manipulated the IV (in other words, they have created the separate conditions of the experiment). In Brown and Kulik, for example, there is no “condition” of the study – there is no independent variable. It’s debatable if the method in this study is a questionnaire or a correlational study (I would say both are acceptable in exams), but it’s not a true experiment as the researchers haven’t created any conditions (i..e haven’t manipulated a variable to see its effect). Hope this helps.

  4. Hi Travis. Does this study classify as an interview? Inthinking says it’s an “interview/questionnaire”
    Thank you for your help!

    1. Post

      It’s a very tough one to classify (and I would argue it doesn’t fit needly into the IB’s predefined notion of “research methods”), but interview/questionnaire works. This is why I encourage students to focus only on true experiments and correlational studies for exams (Paper 1 and Paper 2) because it eliminates such ambiguities.

  5. Hi Mr Dixon,
    I’m thinking about using this study for “Outline/describe/explain one ethical consideration in the study of emotion & cognition”.

    I thought about describing informed consent, protection from harm (in case thinking about the deceased presidents was traumatic), or confidentiality. But they just seem so trivial and superficial. What ethical consideration would you suggest to go with?

    Yours Sincerely

    1. Post

      Informed consent seems relevant – you’re going to be asking people to recall traumatic memories, so you should probably tell them about this, but then….how much do you tell them? That’s the consideration part.

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