Key Study: FBM across cultures by Kulkofsky et al. (2011)

adminCognitive Psychology, Social and Cultural Psychology

In cultures where people are encouraged to share their feelings and emotions, FBMs may be more common because the news of the event is rehearsed more through sharing. However, in other cultures where expressing emotion is discouraged, fewer FBMs may be formed because of less sharing.

Relevant Topics: Emotion and Cognition & Cultural Dimensions

This study compares flashbulb memory (FBM) formation across different cultures. It can be used to show the effects of one cultural dimension (individualism and collectivism) on behaviour (FBM formation).

If you’re using FBM theory to explain how emotion can affect cognition, this could also be used in an essay as a counter-argument as it shows that culture could be a moderating variable. 

Brown and Kulik’s theory of flashbulb memory formation defines FBMs as memories of the circumstances on is in when they hear or receive highly surprising or emotionally significant news. It is not a memory of the event itself, but a memory of the circumstances the person was in when they heard the news, including who they were with, how they found out about it, what they were doing and their emotional response to the news.

Japanese during the March 11th earthquake, for instance,  would not have FBMs of what happened during the earthquake. Rather, their FBM would be regarding hearing and/or seeing the news regarding the tsunami, the nuclear disaster and other news regarding the effects of the earthquake. 

FBMs are by definition public events and nearly all FBM research has been conducted on events such as natural disasters, deaths of celebrities, political events (e.g. revolutions) and major public events (Hirst and Phelps, 2017; this article has a good review of FBM theory in its opening paragraphs).

So FBMs are formed, says the theory, because of the emotional significance of an event. The significance, surprise, shock and/or emotional impact will also impact the level of overt and covert rehearsal.

So how would social and cultural factors influence FBM formation?

Studies in the past have compared different levels of FBMs between groups of people to test the theory that the news must be emotional or significant. For instance, MLK assassination in the USA probably had a more emotional impact for black Americans than it did for most white Americans, so it’s not surprising they formed more FBMs. According to the theory, they would have talked about it more and thought more often about it. For example, at work they might asked each other, “Where were you when you heard about it?” This is a form of rehearsal and will strengthen the memory. For social and cultural groups whom it affected less (e.g. white Americans), they would have been less likely to have such conversations.

But what about FBMs across two very different types of cultures?

To make sense of the study below, it’s useful to recap some key differences between Individualistic and Collectivist cultures. One important difference to know about these two cultures is the extent to which they value the expression of emotion, group harmony and relationships. Collectivist cultures (particularly Japan and China) view the expression and experience of highly negative emotional events as potentially dangerous to established relationships. The individual’s responses to emotional events and expressions of their feelings, especially negative ones, may result in damaging group harmony. This will limit the extent to which rehearsal takes place and thus could impact FBM formation.

Who would form more FBMs, do you think – Japanese people or Americans?

Description of Cross-Cultural Study (Kulkofsky et al)

This study compared FBMs of 274 participants in five different countries (Individualism score /100 in brackets):

  1. USA (91) ,
  2. UK (89),
  3. Germany (67).
  4. Turkey (37)
  5. China (20),

The gender ratio was approximately 50:50, with ages from 32-65 from mainly middle-class communities. The participants were given five minutes to recall as many “public events” as they could. To do this they were asked to write one phrase about the event and then move on quickly to the next. There was a range of recall from 1 memory to 38 memories of public events.

After the participant recalled the memory, they were then asked if they remember the circumstances they were in when they heard about the memory. If they said yes, they moved on to the next section of questions – they were then asked five questions surrounding the event, and awarded 1 point for each they could remember.

They were:

  • where they were when they found out about it;
  • what time of day it was;
  • how they found out about the event;
  • what they were doing at the time;
  • whom they were with*

*FBMs usually contain these characteristics (who, what, how, etc.)

Following this, they were then asked a series of questions (8 in total) using a likert-scale (1 = low, 7 = high), e.g.

  • How important was the event?
  • How intense was the participant’s emotional reaction to the event?
  • How surprising was the event?

Statistical analysis of the results showed that all these factors had a significant impact on the formation of FBMs. The researchers used this data to determine if the participant had formed an FBM of the event. The results showed that the mean number of FBMs were as follows:

  1. Britain (18)      2) USA (12)      3) Germany (9)      4) Turkey(6.5)     5) China (6)

The results also showed that culture influenced the effects of personal importance, emotional intensity, surprise and thinking and talking about the event itself (e.g. the effects of all these factors on FBM were lowest in Chinese participants).


A natural disaster could create FBMs of finding out about the effects of the disaster, like what happened in Japan, 2011. However, Kulkofsky’s research suggests that Japanese people may be less likely to form FBMs than some other cultures because of their beliefs about the importance of expressing and sharing emotions.

These results can be interpreted in a couple of different ways:

  • Individualism and Collectivism 

The results suggest that the culture you belong to will affect how you perceive and respond to an emotional event. This could then affect how you think and talk about that event, which influences FBM formation. For example, cultures that encourage emotion would talk and think more about major public events and thus, form more FBMs.

  • Emotion and Cognition

FBM theory posits that emotional responses to an event will increase covert and overt rehearsal (e.g. thinking and talking about it a lot) which contributes to the formation of a FBM for that event. However, these results suggest that this is not the same across all cultures and the value we place on emotions and expressing those emotions could affect our overt and covert rehearsal of events, thus affecting FBM formation.

Review and Critical Thinking Questions

  • How could cultural values (i.e. Ind/Col) influence FBM formation?
  • How can this study support FBM theory? 
  • FBMs can also be formed about positive events. According to Kulkofsky’s research, could cultural dimensions influence FBM formation of positive events, too?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of this study?
  • Are there other factors that may influence FBM formation, e.g. biological factors?


Kulkofsky, Sarah, Qi Wang, Martin A. Conway, Yubo Hou, Cagla Aydin, Katrin Mueller-Johnson, and Helen Williams. “Cultural Variation in the Correlates of Flashbulb Memories: An Investigation in Five Countries.”Memory 19.3 (2011): 233-40. Web

Hirst, W., & Phelps, E. A. (2016). Flashbulb Memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science25(1), 36–41.