Olivia Guerra


Education: Bachelor of Science in psychology and women's studies (December 1998)

McNair Project: Using a Retrospective Procedure to Examine Predictors of Flashbulb Memory: Does the Picture Change Over Time? (1997)

Mentor: Stephen W. Kiefer, Ph.D.

Most adults attuned to Western culture claim that they vividly remember the context in which they saw the O.J. Simpson chase or heard the announcement of his trial's verdict. This type of vivid recall for events is generally known as "flashbulb memory." Numerous studies have been done on this type of memory. Researchers still do not completely agree, however, on its components. Some researchers claim that flashbulb memories remain stable and complete over time, while others disagree, citing that the researchers claiming the former have never tested whether the memories of their participants were accurate or whether they changed over time. We agree that interpretations from studies which do not validate participants' memories are suspect, because memories for past events could change or become completely erroneous over time. We also recognize that memory reports cannot always be collected immediately after an event, and that in the past flashbulb memory research has not examined how retrospective reports of flashbulb memory change over time. We contend that memory research should replicate and extend past results using latent retrospective event descriptions. The goal of the current research is to determine whether characteristics of flashbulb memory found in past research predict flashbulb memories using latent retrospective event description procedures. Additionally, this research is designed to discover whether changed flashbulb memories remain more consistent than changed ordinary memories across long retention intervals.

The participants were 662 undergraduates enrolled in an introductory class at Kansas State University. They were asked to write what they recalled about the circumstances surrounding three events: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a significant non-embarrassing personal event chosen by the participant, and moving into their college residence. In addition, the participants were asked to complete questionnaires that asked more specific questions about the details of the event (e.g., the time of day the event occurred, where it occurred, how they felt when it occurred, etc.) and also had them rate on a 7- point scale the memorability, vividness, emotional impact, and personal significance of the events, as well as their confidence in the accuracy of the details they had answered. Approximately one year later, 35 volunteers randomly selected from the initial testing group were retested over their memories for the circumstances surrounding the three events they had recorded earlier. This was done by having them complete a package of questionnaires with the same questions that they had answered in the initial phase of the experiment. This procedure was repeated approximately 2 and 3 years after the initial phase.

Following the data analysis, we found that drop in memory rating, drop in emotional impact, drop in confidence, and the occurrence- recording interval may be better predictors of flashbulb memory than drop in vividness across long retention intervals. In addition, the occurrence-recording interval showed the same pattern for events as the flashbulb qualities, indicating that this time factor may explain the data. That is, ratings predictive of flashbulb memories may have already dropped a great deal during the years preceding the initial report which explains why these ratings no longer decreased across intervals of 1-3 years. Thus, we showed that predictors of flashbulb memory were found using a latent retrospective procedure. Additionally, we found that public events had more flashbulb qualities than private events; flashbulb memory predictors remained more stable for public events than personal events.