Flashbulb memories of the assassination attempt on President Reagan



People often have vivid recollections of their own personal circumstances when first learning about attacks on major public figures. Brown and Kulik (1977) propose that these 'flashbulb memories' are triggered both by surprise and perceived consequentiality of the event, and are elaborated through retellings. In this study, memories of the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan were obtained on questionnaires completed one and seven months after the shooting. Subjects responded either at one or both time periods. Most respondents reported flashbulb memories, despite a low incidence of reported rehearsal and low consequentiality ratings. Stronger initial emotional reactions are associated with greater memory elaboration seven months after the event, while frequency of rehearsal is influential at this time only for subjects who completed an earlier questionnaire. Neither affective reactions nor rehearsal predicts memory elaboration after one month. People reacting strongly to the attack are more likely to have visual and nonvisual sensory memories at both time periods. Memories of subjects who responded to both questionnaires are highly consistent over the six-month interval. Stronger emotional reactions to the event, and not rehearsal, are associated with greater consistency of narrative and visual memories. The results suggest that intensity of initial affective reactions, rather than perceived consequentiality or rehearsal, is a primary determinant of flashback memories. A flashback mechanism is proposed to account for affectively cued recall of episodic memories.

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Copyright © 1984 Published by Elsevier B.V.