Contrary to common belief, memories are just not dependable

This was one of my main points in critiquing college student surveys: we can’t ask students questions as if they have a computer hard drive in their head.

A similar study conducted in 1988 yielded similar results. Researchers showed participants slides depicting a burglar stealing a hammer from someone’s office. Then they read a brief report of the incident. Some of them were given reports correctly mentioning a stolen hammer—or more generically, a stolen tool—and others were given reports incorrectly mentioning a stolen wrench.  They were then given a test which included a question about the stolen item in which they could choose either “hammer” or “wrench.”  Those who had read the misleading report chose the correct tool only 43 percent of the time, compared to a 74 percent accuracy rate from those that had read a report with the generic term “tool.” “Misled subjects,” the authors remarked, “responded as quickly and confidently to these ‘unreal’ memories as they did to their genuine memories.”

It can be argued that these events weren’t consequential enough to be readily remembered.  Clearly, a bored college student misremembering pictures on a slide is very different from a victim misremembering the details of a sexual assault or other crime. Taking this into account, psychologists developed a term specifically to describe the memories of such traumatic events: flashbulb memories.

A flashbulb memory is a memory encoded in a time of intense psychological stress that is supposedly extraordinarily vivid and accurate, like a snapshot illuminated by the light of a camera’s flash. While not mentioned by name, this is the type of memory to which psychiatrist Richard Friedman is referring in his New York Times article, “Why Sexual Assault Memories Stick.” Interestingly, he cites only one study—which involves participants reading an “emotionally arousing short story”—to back up his claim that trauma leads to memories that are “indelible.”

This claim runs in direct contradiction to the majority of research on flashbulb memories. As researchers McCloskey, Wible, and Cohen have noted, flashbulb memories use the same neural mechanisms, decay at the same rate, and are no more nor less accurate than typical memories overall. The only notable difference seems to be the confidence with which people speak about their flashbulb memories.

However, not all researchers agree that flashbulb memories operate via the same neural mechanisms as typical memories, nor do they all agree that they are so similar in accuracy. In fact, many researchers argue that flashbulb memories are less accurate.