Does Recall of Specific Memories Differ Between the Sexes? a Study of Flashbulb Memories.
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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BREWERTON, M. A. (2003). Does Recall of Specific Memories Differ Between the Sexes? a Study of Flashbulb Memories.. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Does Recall of Specific Memories Differ Between the Sexes? a Study of Flashbulb Memories.

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
Flashbulb memories are detailed, long-lasting memories for an unexpected and emotionally intense event, first studied in 1977 by Roger Brown and James Kulik. Two years after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, we asked 56 male and female college students ages 18-24 to recall their specific whereabouts and reaction to the event. We hypothesized that women would recall more specific personal details about the event than men would. This hypothesis was not supported by our data. Men and women were equally likely to remember specific details. They reported similar scores on survey questions concerning emotional reaction, personal importance, and vividness of the memory, which supports the notion that women and men do not differ in their memory recall.

Flashbulb Memories: Do Gender Differences Exist?Flashbulb memories are extremely detailed, vivid, and long-lasting memories for an unexpected and emotionally intense event. Brown and Kulik (1977) were the first to seriously research these memories years after the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. They hypothesized that special memories are caused by a specific memory mechanism that operates solely during the brain’s process of encoding surprising, emotionally laden, and widely important events. This memory mechanism causes those who experience the events to store an exact record of the details in their minds. They proposed that this memory, which was later given the name “flashbulb memory”, is long- lasting and completely accurate. Brown and Kulik determined the presence of flashbulb memories by asking adults whether or not they recalled hearing about assassinations or attempted assassinations of figures of national and international importance. They found that 79 out of 80 respondents had vivid recollections of when they heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr., with less people recalling images from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations. Much of the flashbulb memory research since Brown and Kulik’s original report has focused on their claims of the accuracy of memories and resistance to forgetting (Winningham, Hyman, and Dinnel, 2000). For example, Cohen, McCloskey, and Wible (1990) argued against Brown and Kulik’s proposal that a special memory mechanism is involved in the encoding process of flashbulb memories. Other researchers have examined different characteristics in certain people and the effects that these characteristics have on flashbulb memories. Davidson and Glisky (2002) studied the effects of age on ability to recall flashbulb memories; Talarico and Rubin (2003) studied the effects of subject confidence on accurate recall of memories; and Winningham, Hyman, and Dinnel (2000) studied how the time that the initial memory report was obtained effects accurate recall. The role that emotion plays in development of flashbulb memories and to what extent it assists in their formation is also of special interest to many memory researchers. Christianson (1992), Gold (1992), and Reisenberg and Heuer (1992) have all argued that strong emotions can account for the vast majority of the flashbulb memory phenomenon. Of particular interest to us (and one of the main points of this study) is the effect of gender on ability to recall flashbulb memories. Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenhaft (1992), in their study of the Clarence Thomas hearings, found that women were more likely to report having flashbulb memories of the event than men were. They also found that the amount of media coverage was highly correlated with the ability to recall flashbulb memories of the event. Although their study did find gender differences, the event that they chose (the Clarence Thomas hearing) could be considered a more female- oriented event because it concerned the sexual harassment of females in the workplace. Since the ruling and subsequent regulations that came out of it were a major milestone in the lives of working women (and had a direct effect on their life in the workplace), it is possible that women followed the hearing more closely and were therefore more likely to remember specific details about the outcome. Events of major national importance are studied most often when studying flashbulb memories. Historical events that have initiated such research include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (Brown and Kulik, 1977); Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brown and Kulik, 1977); and Olof Palme (Christianson, 1989); the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger (Neisser and Harsch, 1992); the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa (Davidson and Glisky, 2002); and the O.J. Simpson trial verdict (Schmolck, Buffalo, and Squire, 2000). The most recent event to gain national attention, and the main focus of this study, is the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The topic of September 11 has been the focus of so much research because of its widespread implications. September 11th represented a very emotionally charged issue that Americans had never before dealt with in this country and seemed to stimulate much reflection and discussion of terrorism and its effects on a nation. Since America as a nation was the target of this incident, much of the media attention has centered around not only the event itself but also the perpetrators of the event, namely Osama Bin Laden, Al Quaida, and terrorism in general. The emotional intensity of the event, the large amount of televised media coverage, and the extensiveness of newspaper and magazine coverage drove us to study the responses and emotional implications of the events on college students. The participant’s gender and their ability to recall a detailed account is of particular interest to the researchers because of the emotional impact of the terrorist attacks, since emotion is vital to the successful development of flashbulb memories. The survey addresses issues such as emotional impact/ emotional intensity of the event, amount of media coverage the subject was exposed to, and the subject’s home city and state and other demographic information. The subject’s ability to successfully recall in detail any and all flashbulb memories they might have is the main focus of the survey. Each of these things will be tallied and compared against the subject’s gender to discover any potential gender differences in the amount and type of details that the subject can recall. Past research has indicated that “women are significantly more likely than men to report vivid image memories and recall of autobiographical events (Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenhaft, 1992).” Since “men and women differ in their perceptions, interpretations, and tendencies to recall such incidents (Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenhaft, 1992),” it is hypothesized by the researchers that women will be more likely than men to recall multiple specific personal details of their reactions to the terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001. However, it is also possible that, because the event held such great national importance, detailed personal accounts of the events might be elicited by both sexes equally.

MethodParticipants The two researchers distributed the survey to 70 students (ages 18-22) from Loyola University New Orleans. A sign up sheet was posted on the Human Participants Pool Board in the Psychology Department with different times and dates when the researchers would be administering the survey and the participants chose a time that was convenient for them. Students known to the researchers were also asked to take the survey. All respondents were assured of complete anonymity; they were asked not to put their names anywhere on the survey and to place the survey in a large manila envelope once it was completed. Participants who were enrolled in a psychology course were offered class extra credit as incentive to participate in the survey. MaterialsThe variables being compared by this survey were the subject’s sex and the amount of details they listed in an open- ended narrative (Section IV). The survey contained four sections. The first section asked the participants’ demographic information including their age, year in school, sex, and home city and state. The second section was an open-ended narrative description which asked the participants to recall in as much detail as possible their memories of the events of September 11, 2001, specifically location, reaction, means of notification, etc. The participants were notified that they could utilize the back of the survey for any additional information they wished to provide. Section three contained specific questions that involved the participants’ emotional responses to the event. Participants were asked to rate these responses on a scale of 5 choices. The questions concerned how important the events were to personal life, how emotionally unprepared the subject was for the events, the vividness of the memories, and the emotional intensity of the event. The final section was a simple question asking the participant to specify how many hours of televised media coverage he or she was exposed to within one day of the event’s occurrence. ProcedureParticipants chose a specific time slot to take the survey. They read and signed the informed consent forms immediately upon their arrival at the designated site. They were instructed not to put their names or any identifying marks anywhere on the survey. Participants were then administered the survey in groups and were asked to fill it out completely. In all cases, the participants were encouraged to give as many specific details as possible when writing their reponses to the open- ended question. They were given as much time as they needed to complete the survey. Once they finished, they were instructed to place their surveys in an unmarked manila envelope and ensured that their responses were completely anonymous. They were then debriefed, given the telephone number and location of the Loyola University Counseling and Career Center, and were allowed to leave.

ResultsOur research hypothesis concerned the relationship between a participant’s gender and their ability to recall specific details of the events of September 11th, 2001; we hypothesized that women would be more likely to recall more details of the terrorist attacks. To address this question, we calculated the mean number of details that all female participants could recall and the mean number of details that male participants recalled and compared the two statistics with an independent samples t-test using SPSS. Our hypothesis was not supported. t(54)= .863, n.s. The mean number of details recalled by males (4.32, standard deviation 1.57) did not differ significantly from the number recalled by females (3.97, standard deviation 1.47).Our survey also contained four questions concerning emotional reaction to the event. We hypothesized that, because the number of details that women were able to recall would be higher than the number of details men were able to recall, women would also have higher scores on the questions relating to emotional significance and vividness of the event. In rating their answers to each of these questions, men and women gave very similar ratings to each question (See table).

DiscussionPast research has supported the claim that women are more likely to report having flashbulb memories of important events than men are (Morse, et al., 1992) and has also shown that extremely strong emotions play a large role in the successful formations of flashbulb memories (Reisenberg & Heuer, 1992). The emotional intensity of September 11, 2001 and its widespread implications drove us to hypothesize that women would be more likely than men to remember specific details of the event. Although Morse, et al. (1992) found a significant difference in the ability of males and females to recall flashbulb memories, our hypothesis was clearly unsupported by our data, because we found no significant difference at all in the amount of details recalled by men and women and no significant difference in a variety of questions concerning emotional importance, intensity, and vividness of memories. Our study differed from other gender-related flashbulb memory studies because we did not test our subjects immediately after the event and then test them again after a specific period of time, which presented us with a major reliability issue: how do we know that our participants’ reported memories match their actual reactions at the time? Most other flashbulb memory tests consist of at least two separate tests and the results can subsequently be compared and contrasted to find the “true” flashbulb memories. We did not have the benefit of testing and retesting our subjects because of time constraints and were forced to rely on only what the participants reported to us one time. Another major difference is that other flashbulb memory tests concerning gender have centered on more gender-specific events such as the death of Princess Diana (Davidson and Glisky, 2002) and the Clarence Thomas hearings that dealt with sexual harassment of women in the workplace (Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenaft, 1992). September 11th could be viewed as a gender-neutral event because, unlike the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings, it involved all Americans, regardless of race, sex, religion, etc. and represented an extremely important and historical event in American history. The small and limited population that we were forced to draw our participants from could have altered our results somewhat. College students are constantly surrounded by aftereffects of September 11th; many class discussions and debates have revolved around the attacks and terrorism in general, and the general population might not have been exposed to this kind of rehearsal. This exposure forced students to repeatedly recall their reactions and opinions about the event and may have altered their true flashbulb memory somewhat. It is impossible to be sure what the true flashbulb memory is and what is only a product of repeated media exposure and discussions about the topic. Although this could present a validity issue, our test also asked the participants to identify how much they were impacted, the emotional intensity of the event, and the vividness of the memory. In the future, if this study is duplicated, researchers should ensure that they have two separate testing dates on which to test their participants for validity reasons. Any potential researcher should also have an adequate supply of male participants in order to effectively measure the population. The validity of flashbulb memories has been an issue since they were first investigated by Brown and Kulik in 1977. Research has focused on their claims of accuracy, resistance to forgetting (Winningam, Hyman, and Dinnel, 2000), and their idea that a special memory mechanism is involved in the encoding process (Cohen, McCloskey, and Wible, 1990). Age and its effects on accurate recall has also been an issue (Davidson and Glisky, 2002). Flashbulb memories themselves are the topic of much debate and research because the study of them is such a recent phenomenon. Hopefully, this study of flashbulb memories should contribute to general scientific knowledge about flashbulb memories in both men and women and in college students. It enforces the notion that flashbulb memories do exist, even though all people differ in their emotional reactions, ability to recall memories, and vividness of the memory. Our study does not support Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenhaft’s theory that women are more likely than men to report having flashbulb memories. However, it does show that the development and recall of flashbulb memories might differ among age groups, since Morse, at al.’s original study found not only a difference among males and females but also different age categories. Our study should increase general knowledge about flashbulb memories in college students or people ages 18-24 and how they differ from the flashbulb memories of young children and the elderly. This study will hopefully enhance people’s knowledge about how their memory formation and recollection changes during different stages of life, and to support the notion that flashbulb memories do have a great affect on people’s everyday lives. The general population needs to know that all of the victims of September 11th, like the citizens of New York or Washington D. C., those who lost family and friends, employees of the World Trade Center, etc., must live with the vivid memory of the events every day of their lives. Each individual’s memories helped to enforce a general ideal of unity and solidarity in America that, two years later, has not died. Flashbulb memories are the kind of memories that are not forgotten; they are what keep American citizens motivated to support our troops, encourage patriotism in our schools and workplaces, and enforce the ideals that this country was founded on.

ReferencesBrown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73-93.Christianson, S. A. (1989). Flashbub memories: Special but not so special. Memory and Cognition, 17, 435-443.Cohen, N., McCloskey, M, & Wible, C. (1990). Flashbulb memories and underying cognitive mechanisms: Reply to Pillemer. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 119, 97-100.Davidson, P. & Glisky, E. (2002). Is flashbulb memory a special instance of source memory? Evidence from older adults. Memory, 10 (2), 99-111.Gold, P. E. (1992). A proposed neurological basis for regulating memory storage for significant events. In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Vol. 4, pp. 141-161). New York: Cambridge University Press.Morse, C., Woodward, E., & Zweigenhaft, L. (1992). Gender differences in flashbulb memories elicited by the Clarence Thomas hearings. The Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 453-458.Neisser, U. & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom fashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about the Challenger. In E.Winograd and U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recal: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Vol. 4, pp. 9-31). New York: Cambridge UniversityPress.Reisberg, D. & Heuer, F. (1992). Remembering the details of emotional events. In E. Winograd and U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recal: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Vol. 4, pp. 162-190). New York: Cambridge University Press.Schmolck, H., Buffalo, E. A., & Squire, L. R. (2000). Memory distortions develop over time: Recollections of the O. J. Simpson trial verdict after 15 and 32 months. Psychological Science, 11, 39-45.Talarico, J. & Rubin, D. (2003). Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories. Psychological Science, 14, 455-461.Winningham, R., Hyman, I., & Dinnel, D. (2000). Flashbulb memories? The effects of when the initial memory report was obtained. Memory, 8 (4), 209-216.

TablesMean Scores on Survey Questions* Mean (Male) Mean (Female) Standard Deviation (Male) Standard Deviation (Female) tQuestion 1 2.12 2.26 .93 .89 .563, n.s.Question 2 2.72 2.29 1.21 .97 -1.475, n.s.Question 3 1.80 1.97 .71 .84 .799, n.s.Question 4 2.32 2.32 1.22 .75 .010, n.s.*(Responses are on a Scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest)



Description: The purpose of this study is to research the ability to recall flashbulb memories of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Part I: Demographic Information

1. Please circle your sex:

Male Female

2. Age (In Years)_________________

3. Please circle your class status:

Freshman Sophomore Junior Senior

4. Hometown (city, state, country)___________________________

Part II:

Please specifically describe the details primarily surrounding you when you first learned that the United States had been attacked on September 11, 2001. Vividly depict as many features as possible from your recollection such as your specific location, your specific initial reaction, your means of notification, etcetera.

Part III: Please circle one of the following choices.

1. How important did you feel these events were to you in your personal life?

A. Extremely Important

B. Very Important

C. Somewhat important

D. Not very important

E. Not important at all

2. How emotionally unprepared did you feel for the events of September 11, 2001?

A. Extremely emotionally unprepared

B. Very emotionally unprepared

C. Somewhat emotionally unprepared

D. Not very emotionally unprepared

E. Not emotionally unprepared at all

3. How vivid do you consider your memories of the events to be?

A. Extremely Vivid

B. Very Vivid

C. Somewhat Vivid

D. Not very vivid

E. Not vivid at all

4. Please rate the emotional intensity of the event for you personally?

A. Extremely emotional

B. Very emotional

C. Somewhat emotional

D. Not very emotional

E. Not emotional at all

Part IV:

1. Approximately how many hours of televised media coverage did you watch within one day during that period?

______________ (in hours)



Submitted 12/7/2003 2:08:28 PM
Last Edited 12/7/2003 2:14:27 PM
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