Flashbulb memories (FBMs) were first described by as being photographic mental images of hearing the shocking news of an important event. However, many studies have since indicated that FBMs are not more accurate than regular memories. Instead, what makes FBMs special may be that they are often rated as more vivid and often given higher confidence ratings than ordinary memories. The objective of this study was to examine FBMs from a story-telling perspective, to see if there is anything special about FBM stories that makes them good to have and to share, even if inaccurate. The current study re-examined an established set of FBMs for the space shuttle Challenger disaster that were collected from one group of college students over three time periods: in 1986, 1988 and 1989. The current analysis was three-pronged. First, the stories were judged using common narrative analysis schemas (coherence, orientation and evaluation) to see if they changed over time to become better stories from a structural perspective. Second the narratives were judged from a listener-interest point of view, to see if the narratives changed to become more interesting over time. Finally the students’ metamemory comments about why they thought their narratives changed over time were coded to see if, like literary autobiographies, some details were omitted, while other details were added, to better express the gist of the narrator’s experience. Results showed that students consistently told coherent narratives that contained a moderate level of orienting details. Interestingly, the 1989 verbal narratives contained the fewest evaluative (emotional) comments and were judged by two coders as less interesting stories with less flash and pizzazz. The students’ metamemory comments indicated they thought their less accurate later narratives best reflected the gist of their experience and best matched the visual images they held. The limitations of comparing written and verbal narratives over time are also discussed.


Professor Ulric Neisser and Emory University's Psychology Department.

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