We Don’t Always Remember Public Tragedy Very Accurately

A September 11th memorial in West Orange, New Jersey. (Photo: Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock)

A recent article written by Nathan Collins discusses the idea that although when we recall events that we just KNOW are accurate (we’d even be willing to be our life on it) we are often actually wrong.  This has been found to be the case even in public tragedies that have nationwide or world wide effects.

This article particularly focuses on the attacks that occurred on 9/11/2001. A longitudinal study showed that there was a large difference in the recall of participants between the month after the tragedy and the year after the tragedy.

The memories of events like 9/11- “flashbulb memories”- are ones that we tend to think will never change. We claim that we “remember it like it was yesterday”. We claim that we can see ourselves in that exact place, and we can feel the mood we were in when it happened. But how true is this, really?

In the previously mentioned study, a research team led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps issued a survey to a few thousand participants within the first few weeks of the September 11th tragedy. This survey asked questions such as, “how did you find out about the tragedy?”, “what do you know about the events about the attacks?”. The researchers followed up these questions in August 2002, 2004, and most recently, 2011.

Results showed that in August 2002 (less than a YEAR after 9/11), the participants’ recall pertaining to their location had changed from the first survey, which was collected only a month after 9/11.

In one case, a participant said (in survey 1) that he had been in the kitchen making breakfast when he heard the news. However, in August 2002, (survey 2) the same participant claimed that he’d been in his dorm room folding laundry. THEN, interestingly enough, in 2004 and 2011 the same participant stuck with his second memory, saying that he had been in his dorm room folding laundry on the morning of the attacks.

General results showed two trends…

1. The most dramatic changes in participants responses to the surveys occurred between the survey collected the month after 9/11 and the survey collected in August 2002. This trend suggests that the memory stabilized after the first year.

2. Inaccurate memories (such as where the planes crashed, and how many plans were involved) were often corrected. However, inconsistent flashbulb memories were not corrected. By the time the results came in for the 2011 survey, the participants involved in the study had repeated more than 60% of the inconsistencies that had been revealed after the August 2002 survey.

The findings of this study suggest that our minds are reconstructive.  We do remember, but our memory is often influenced by perception imagination, semantic memory, and beliefs. Also, confidence of a memory is not (AT ALL) correlated with the accuracy of the memory. People may believe their memory could never have errors during recall, but the truth is, memory is subject to all kinds of errors such as individual perception, social influence, and general knowledge.

I was in the 2nd grade when the attacks on September 11th occurred. I remember that I was sitting in my music class when we were told the news. My school was on lock down, and more than half of the students were picked up by their parents. However, my mother was (and still is) a teacher at that school, and I was one of the few that didn’t leave because my mother couldn’t either.

Are those memories of my experience on 9/11 actually accurate? That is something I will never know. This is the beauty and mystery of flashbulb memories!