Gender Differences and Flashbulb Memories Regarding the Recent Event of September 11, 2002
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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NGUYEN, E. M. (2003). Gender Differences and Flashbulb Memories Regarding the Recent Event of September 11, 2002. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Gender Differences and Flashbulb Memories Regarding the Recent Event of September 11, 2002

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
Gender differences are often present in many different studies. Thus, differences between males (n=26) and females (n=31) in relation to flashbulb memories and recollection from September 11, 2001 were investigated. Past research indicates that females excel in episodic memories (ability to recall and recognize events), but are outperformed by males in visuospatial memories (mathematical and science reasoning memories). Therefore, it was hypothesized that females would achieve greater amounts of flashbulb memories due to their advantages in episodic memories. Memory recall was measured by means of coding specific instances such as place, informant, time, own affect, others affect in the free-recall portion of the questionnaire. Results indicate that there were no significant difference between males and females in reference to flashbulb memories. T-tests show that both males and females ultimately recalled similar numbers of details. Finally, the amount of media coverage did not differ by gender since males and females recalled about the same number of personal memories elicited by September 11th.
Often metaphorically characterized as a camera, Flashbulb memory is very much like a photograph that arbitrarily seizes and preserves a scene (Swar & Kihlstrom, 2002). It is a scene that is defined by a particular kind of “memory, which forms only for highly surprising and highly consequential events (Swar & Kihlstrom, 2002).” These events vary from such instances like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986 to the John F. Kennedy Assassination in November 22, 1963. These events are noted to be fixed in the mind for a long period of time so deep that it is perceived to be ultimately permanent. Flashbulb memories often result in one’s recollection in detail as to where they were, when the event happened, who told them, who was with them, what their emotional reaction, and so on. Brown and Kulik (1977) redefined the way many view the phenomenon of flashbulb memories. In their classic study, they asked participants, 40 black and 40 white Americans, whether they recalled vivid memories of hearing about various assassinations or attempted killings of national or international figures that had occurred within a decade. Such assassinations or attempts would include John F. Kennedy, Malcolm “X,” Martin Luther King, Gerald Ford, and Ted Kennedy. Brown and Kulik suggested that each individual has a physiological mechanism referred to as the now print that is elicited for events that are highly consequential and emotional to an individual. In short, they tested their hypothesis by comparing non-consequential events against consequential events. As a result, the John F. Kennedy assassination ranked the highest amongst White and Black Americans in consequentiality because it ultimately affected all families across the country regardless of race. In recent event, there has been much debate over Brown and Kulik’s theory of Flashbulb Memories. Criticisms arise from their claim that “these memories do not decay like memories for other events: they are always there, and unchanging (Wright, Gaskell, & O’Muircheartaigh 1998).” Substantial recall could also reflect the considerable amount of publicity through mass media that was reported at that time. These memories, in other words, can be encoded by means of rehearsal, repetition. Also, the quality of the responses and ability to vividly recall such crucial events give reasons for psychologists to dispute the accuracy and reliability behind this theory. Regardless, their research has enhanced the way we view the physiological makeup underlying memory recall. The increasing popularity of this subject allows researchers to learn more about this fascinating psychological process that is most likely to occur in any major event. Gender differences are widely studied in many research experiments; thus, we thought it might be interesting to see if there is any relation between gender and flashbulb memories. We often discuss visuospatial and episodic memories in relation to gender differences. In recent studies, there has been a clear gender distinction in episodic memory tasks between males and females (Herlitz & Yonker, 2002). Women tend to dominate in episodic memories as opposed to men who out perform women in accessing visuospatial memories (Herlitz & Yonker, 2002). In this study, we focus our attention to episodic memories primarily because it pertains to the recall and recognition of events. The presence of gender differences in episodic memories reflects in differences between men and women on other cognitive tasks (Herlitz & Yonker, 2002). Sehulster (1988) found that females were more likely to have a memory ability that was high on autobiographical memory as opposed to males (Goddard, Dritschel, & Burton, 1998). Sehulster suggested that females elicit a greater amount of access to emotional and autobiographical material by means of rehearsed and organized conversations. Males, on the other hand, often access factual information by means of conversation and in return results in the greater rehearsal and organization of verbal and factual material rather than autobiographical memories (Goddard, Dritschel, & Burton, 1998). This present study attempts to focus on gender differences in Flashbulb Memories regarding the recent event of September 11, 2001. It was a consequential event where hijacked jetliners hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside of Washington killing innocent people and turning the United States into turmoil. September 11th sparked the beginning of change and unity in the United Stages and is a day in which most Americans could never forget. Thus, factors such as age, interest, race, gender, and so on all have relevance to this study. We direct our attention to gender solely because of the availability of time and subjects at Loyola University. Females and males often differ in perceptions, interpretations, and tendencies to recall such incidents (Morse & Woodward, 1993). Although both genders clearly remember instances from this event, we hypothesize that females are likely to recall more specific events from September 11th than males simply because they have a greater access to episodic memories.

Participants A total of fifty-seven undergraduate students, freshmen through seniors, from Loyola University New Orleans volunteered to participate in the study. The age range was from 17 years of age to 37 years of age (mean age=19.91), twenty-five being males and thirty-one were females. Participants were recruited strictly by means of volunteer basis. Sampling strategies included posting up sign up sheets documenting information about the study and available times, convenience sampling, the Loyola University psychology department human participants’ pool, and by word of mouth where professors introduced studies being conducted in their various psychology classes. Materials Participants were asked to sign and date two consent forms, one for their records and the other one for the researchers’ records. The informed consent included the researchers’ names, email addresses, and phone numbers along with the sponsors’ contact information regarding any questions or concerns the participants may have. The form gave an overview of the experiments and outlined the participants’ rights and safety regarding the study. A questionnaire was the primary apparatus used for this study. There was a brief description of the study at the beginning. The questionnaire was divided into four sections. Part I asked for demographic information specifically asking participants their gender, age (in years), class status, and hometown (city, state, country). The second section was a free-recall portion where the participants were asked to write a narrative overview of their experiences and to describe in detail the vivid images that were portrayed from September 11, 2001. Such images would include location, initial reaction, emotions, thoughts and concerns, and so on. Hence, we asked participants to write down anything that came to mind; specifically, any details that they were willing to share. The statements read “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 was a simple multiple choice section containing four questions asking participants questions such as “How important did you feel these events were to you in your personal life,” “ How emotionally unprepared did you feel for these events,” and “How vivid do you consider your memories of the events to be.” For the previous questions participants were asked to circle one of the following choices: extremely, very, somewhat, not very, or not at all. The final section simply asked for approximate amount of hours of televised media coverage watched within one day during that period.Brown and Kulik’s (1977) method of coding was used for this study. Their “canonical” form included six categories of Flashbulb memories. Brown and Kulik suggested that an informant was most likely to report their “place” in which they learned of the event, the “ongoing event” that interrupted the event at that time, the “informant” who brought the news to their attention, the “affect of others” around them, their “own affect,” and the immediate “aftermath” of the event after learning about it. We also incorporated two other categories including the “time” in which the informant learned about the event, and “other specific people present” during the event. Design and Procedure

This study was a non-experimental, correlational design. Gender and amount of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001 were the two variables being tested. As previously stated in the introduction, we hypothesize that females are more likely to recall more flashbulb memories than males are because of their episodic memory advantages. Although there was more than one way to code such flashbulb memories from the free-recall portion of the survey, we chose to use Brown and Kulik’s scale as a benchmark along with two other factors; time and others present. The multiple-choice questions provided information about the accuracy of the individual’s account of September 11, 2001. The questionnaire simply made an attempt to relate gender to flashbulb memories trusting that the participants were as honest as possible when answering them. Investigators placed sign up sheets on the Loyola Psychology Department bulletin board setting up different times and dates available for participants to sign up within a one-week period. The sign up sheets also included a description of the study and an approximate time frame of fifteen minutes necessary for study to be completed. When participants arrived at the scheduled classroom, they were greeted and then asked sit in any desk. Once seated, participants were each given a packet which including six pages of information; two being the informed consent forms and the other four composed of the questionnaire. After receiving the packet, participants were asked to briefly read through the consent forms allowing them the opportunity to ask any questions or concerns they might have. Once signed, the participants were allotted as much time as needed to complete the questionnaire. When completed, participants were asked to step outside the door while the others were still finishing up their questionnaires. While outside, participants were debriefed about the actual purpose of the study as well as counseling services that are available to them at any time if they were saddened or depressed from the questionnaire. Finally, there was a last call for questions and then the participants were allowed to leave. Other participants were randomly selected from Loyola University’s campus grounds. Investigators approached students sitting on campus benches and asked if they could spare fifteen minutes. Those participants who responded with a “yes” were given a packet that contained all the forms necessary for the study including the two informed consents and the questionnaire. Participants were asked to read through and sign the consent forms first before the questionnaire was administered. When completed, the participants were debriefed with appropriate information concerning the study and counseling services.

Results There were 56 total participants, 31 females and 25 males. We calculated the mean number of details that all female participants could recall and the mean number of details that male participants recalled. The independent groups t-test was used to compare the means of males (M=4.32, SD=1.57) and females’ (M=3.97, SD=1.47) ability to recall events from September 11, 2001. The overall results (t(54)=-.863, n.s.) indicated that there are no significant differences in flashbulb memories between males and females which ultimately indicated that our hypothesis was not supported. There were four multiple-choice questions on the questionnaire. The first question showed no significant difference between males and females asking how important the events were in relation to the participant’s personal life for females (M=2.26, SD=0.89) and males (M=2.12, SD=0.93). The second question referred to the emotional preparation of the individual for females (M=2.29, SD=.97) and males (M=2.72, SD=1.21). The third question referred to how vivid the individual felt his or her recollections of the events were for females (M=1.97, SD=.84) and males (M=1.80, SD=.71). The final question asked the individual to rate his or her emotional intensity of the event for females (M=2.32, SD=.75) and males (M=2.32, SD=1.22). We hypothesized that because females would recall more than males, females would also have a higher ratings on specific questions relating to emotional significance and vividness of the event. As a result, all four multiple choices showed that there is no significant difference in responses between males and females (Table 1).


The results did not support the hypothesis that stated females would have more recollection and flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001 than would males. According to the results, there was no significant difference between the male and female participants in this study. In addition, a significant difference did not appear between the recall of males and females in answers for the four multiple-choice questions in the questionnaire. Brown and Kulik (1977) coined a biological explanation that claims the brain elicits a “now print” mechanism. Due to this “now print” mechanism, an individual is able to remember personal jolts or memories of crucial events when they were initially learned or heard about. Brown and Kulik ultimately revolutionized the way many perceive flashbulb memories and has sparked a greater interest among others psychologist in this theory. Regardless, Brown and Kulik (1977) did not specifically focus on gender differences but rather focused on proving that flashbulb memories do ultimately exist. Other researchers such as Morse, Woodward, and Zweigenhaft (1993) attempted to show that gender differences in flashbulb memories might actually exist but only for particular consequential events that affect or target one gender more than the other. Their study was based on the Clarence Thomas Hearings in 1991, which dealt with Thomas’s sexual harassment of Anita Hill. This case sparked national attention because it was one of the first harassment cases against women recognized. In this study, females did report more autobiographical facts from the case than men did. This is apparent because sexual harassment and abuse occurs far more often towards women than men. Hence, this may be the reason why women recalled more information from the event than men did. The present study measured as many variables as possible including hometown and age along with the individual’s gender. There are many problems that may have occurred while the research study was conducted. On one hand, the study may have been carried out for a longer than necessary period of time. Sessions ran at Loyola University for a week and a half. Within that period, students who have taken the questionnaire may have revealed the purpose of the study within their classes to other participants prior to the study. On the other hand, some students might have taken the surveys more seriously than others did. The small sample size may have also influenced the results. Although the number of males and females who participated in the study was similarly equal, a larger sample size may be able to shift the results one way or the other. A large problem factor might also be present in the validity of the individual responses. The free response question was left open-ended allowing participants to write as much information as possible. There is no concrete method of verifying each individual’s recollection. Thus, the information written down was seen as reliable “recollections” and was recorded as data. If this research were conducted as well as Neisser and Harsh’s (1992) study on Flashbulb Memories and the Challenger Explosion, validity would have been easily established. Neisser and Harsch (1992) attempted to test the accuracy of flashbulb memories by performing two tests, one right after a consequential event (Challenger explosion) and the other 32-34 months after the event. One hundred and six participants were surveyed twenty-four hours right after the event occurred. Under three years later, forty-four subjects were asked to recall this information once again. As a result, they found discrepancies between the two sets of recollections especially from those who felt confident in their answers. Specifically, 25% of the subjects were wrong about every recollection and only three were perfectly correct. The free recall section was specifically coded to fit the investigators’ interpretation of what actually defined a flashbulb memory. For instance, most participants remembered a location in which they learned about the event. Thus, in our opinion, the plain answer school did not constitute as a flashbulb memory unless the participant specified a class such as English or Biology, an office location such as the principal’s or counselor’s office, the bathroom, and so on. The canonical category of time was included and surprisingly enough there were some participants who remembered the specific time they had heard of the news. Some participants failed to respond to what the question really asked. Some misconstrued flashbulb memories to be the memory of the central newsworthy portion, which pertained to hijackers taking over the planes that hit the twin towers rather than discussing the memory for the circumstances in which they first heard or learned about the event. Unfortunately, these problems may have influenced our data results. Questionnaires with central newsworthy information were obviously irrelevant. In addition, there is no indication that shows that the participants either did not specifically remember the detailed account such as location and time or just failed to mention it. For further research purposes, there are many ways this study can be improved. First, there should be a larger amount of participants. I would estimate a range from one hundred to one hundred fifty participants would give great results if not more. Second, I would suggest testing gender differences and flashbulb memories for another consequential event rather than September 11, 2001. I would choose an event that sparked national attention for a long time but not as big as September 11, 2001. September 11th was an event too powerful that no one regardless of gender could ever forget. Lastly, I would suggest that this study be conducted at a large university where psychology classes are large and there are many unfamiliar faces in the participants’ pool. That would alleviate leaks about the purpose of the study. Obviously, both males and females clearly remember instances from September 11th. These instances differ from individual to individual. It is information that only he or she could remember. In our results, some did remember more than others. It would be hasty to underestimate males’ ability to recall such vivid memories since such an occurrence affected almost everyone individually. Although there were no significant results in this study, it was really interesting to experiment with flashbulb memories and learn about its outcome among college men and women. It increases one’s awareness about the human mind and its ability to encode such memories during a traumatic event. As far as contribution to science, this research study proposes a challenge to dig deeper and understand that there are differences among men and women that may not be apparent in our study but are clearly obvious in other types of studies. Genetic factors or even environmental factors might influence us as human beings today. In essence men and women are somewhat engineered differently to face different types of situations. Thus, an event that is more crucial to one gender over the other will create reactions, thinking, and memories that will ultimately be different. In context, one gender will remember more from that event than the other will. The theoretical implications behind flashbulb memories and the “now print” mechanism may never prove to be true, but it allows one to apply this information to the real world. Our study primarily focused on college students and their recollections during September 11, 2001. How would these recollections differ among students in high school or even those in grammar school? Would age play a large factor in how much we recall from an event such as this? Our study wanted to enhance people’s knowledge about flashbulb memories and prove that they do in fact affect our everyday lives. Although there were many that were indirectly affected by this event, there are those number of families who were directly targeted emotionally by this event. Those families who were victims of September 11th have no choice but to remember the day that their son, daughter, cousin, father, mother, and so on fell prey to terrorist attacks. This was a national tragedy that sparked attention world wide, and it is a day that most can never forget, only remember.

Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73-99.Goddard, L., Dritschel, B., & Burton, A. (1998). Gender differences in the dual-task effects on autobiographical memory retrieval during social problem solving. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 611-628.Herlitz, A., & Yonker, J. (2002). Sex differences in episodic memory: The influence ofintelligence. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24, 107-114.Morse, C., & Woodward, E. (1993). Gender differences in flashbulb memories elicited by the Clarence Thomas Hearings. Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 453- 459.Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb memories” (pp.9-31). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.Swar, M., & Kihlstrom, J. (2002). Flashbulb Memories: Historical and personal memories and flashbulb quality. Retrieved October 20, 2003.Wright, D., Gaskell, G., & O’Muircheartaigh, C. (1997). The reliability of the subjective reports of memories. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 9, 313-323.


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)

TablesMean Scores on Survey Questions (Responses on a Scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest) 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.

Submitted 12/9/2003 12:12:52 PM
Last Edited 12/9/2003 12:20:15 PM
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