Flashbulb Memory Studies

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 are the most commonly studied source of FBMs. (originally posted to Flickr by Lil' Mike, used under CC license).

Here is a summary of evidence to use when discussing Brown and Kulik’s FBM theory:


Brown and Kulik conducted a study to test their theory using 80 American participants – 40 African American and 40 caucasian. They were asked questions about 10 events, 9 being very famous public events (e.g. assassinations of public figures like JFK and MLK) and one event of close personal relevance that involved a degree of shock. The results showed that 90% of the participants had formed FBMs for the assassination of JFK. However, more African American participants formed FBMs for MLK. (Brown and Kulik, 1977).


The fact that more African Americans formed FBMs of hearing the news of MLK’s death supports Brown and Kulik’s FBM theory, since black people would have found this news far more emotional than whites because of the importance of MLK for the civil rights movement.

Another study investigated the formation of FBMs for the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the long-time Prime Minister of Britain. This event was regarded by many British people to be surprising and very important to the lives of Brits. They tested individual’s memory of hearing about this event within a few days, 11 months and 26 months after it happened. After 11 months, 86% of the British participants had formed FBMs and they remained consistent at the 26th month point. Moreover, non-British participants had lower FBM formation of Thatcher’s resignation (Conway et al., 1994 link).


However, according to Eysenck and Keane, “most research on FBMs [show they] are unreliable.” (294). For instance, 73% of Americans studied claim they saw the video of the first plane hitting the first tower on the day of the attacks. But this videotape was not available on the 11th, it was only videos of the plane hitting the second tower that were broadcast (Pezdek, 2003 link, as cited in Eysenk and Keane). Similarly, 45% of Brits in one study remember seeing the video of Princess Diana’s accident – but there is no film of her crash! (Ost et al, 2002).


The death of Princess Diana is one source of study for FBMs.

Another study tested this question regarding just how more reliable and consistent FBMs are when compared with normal memories. Talarico and Rubin (2003) tested this by asking participants on September 12th, 2001, to recall details of where they were when they heard about the attacks the day before. They also recorded details of an everyday event that the participants recalled. They subsequently tested them after 7, 42 and 224 days. The results showed that the participants reported the memories very vividly and they were confident in their memories. However, they were no more consistent than the memories of the everyday event (Talarico and Rubin, 2003 Link).

Further research suggests that FBMs are not fully formed at the time of the event, but are formed over a few days through the process of rehearsal. A study into the OJ Simpson murder trial (Winningham, Hyman, Dinnel, 2000 link) showed that participants’ memories of hearing about OJ’s acquittal varied over the first few days before they became consistent.


When using FBM to explain how emotion affects cognition, it is important that we can critically evaluate the theory by looking at the evidence on both sides of the argument.

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


  • Brown, Roger, and James Kulik. “Flashbulb Memories.” Cognition, vol. 5, no. 1, 1977, pp. 73–99., doi:10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-x.
  • Conway, Martin A., et al. “The Formation of Flashbulb Memories.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 22, no. 3, 1994, pp. 326–343., doi:10.3758/bf03200860.
  • Eysenck, Michael W., and Mark T. Keane. Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. New York, NY: Psychology, 2006. Print.
  • Pezdek, Kathy. “Event Memory and Autobiographical Memory for the Events of September 11, 2001.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, Wiley-Blackwell, 8 Jan. 2004, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.984/abstract.
  • Talarico, Jennifer M., and David C. Rubin. “Confidence, Not Consistency, Characterizes Flashbulb Memories.” Psychological Science, vol. 14, no. 5, 2003, pp. 455–461., doi:10.1111/1467-9280.02453.
  • Winningham, R. G., Hyman, I. E. Jr., & Dinnel, D. L. (2000). Flashbulb memories? The effects of when the initial memory report was obtained. Memory, 8, 209216.