Effect of delay of first interview and repetition of interview on accuracy and confidence of recall of a flashbulb-type memory

Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor's Name

Bennett L. Schwartz

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Paulette Johnson

Third Advisor's Name

Arthur Flexser

Fourth Advisor's Name

Ronald P. Fisher

Date of Defense



Hearing of the news of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a traffic accident, is taken as an analogue for being a percipient but uninvolved witness to a crime, or a witness to another person's sudden confession to some illegal act. This event (known in the literature as a "reception event") has previously been hypothesized to cause one to form a special type of memory commonly known as a "flashbulb memory" (FB) (Brown and Kulik, 1977). FB's are hypothesized to be especially resilient against forgetting, highly detailed including peripheral details, clear, and inspiring great confidence in the individual for their accuracy. FB's are dependent for their formation upon surprise, emotional valence, and impact, or consequentiality to the witness of the initiating event. FB's are thought to be enhanced by frequent rehearsal. FB's are very important in the context of criminal investigation and litigation in that investigators and jurors usually place great store in witnesses, regardless of their actual accuracy, who claim to have a clear and complete recollection of an event, and who express this confidently. Therefore, the lives, or at least the freedom, of criminal defendants, and the fortunes of civil litigants hang on the testimony of witnesses professing to have FB's.

In this study, which includes a large and diverse sample (N = 305), participants were surveyed within 2 - 4 days after hearing of the fatal accident, and again at intervals of 2 and 4 weeks, 6, 12, and 18 months. Contrary to the FB hypothesis, I found that participants' FB's degraded over time beginning at least as early as two weeks post event. At about 12 months the memory trace stabilized, resisting further degradation. Repeated interviewing did not have any negative affect upon accuracy, contrary to concerns in the literature. Analysis by correlation and regression indicated no effect or predictive power for participant age, emotionality, confidence, or student status, as related to accuracy of recall; nor was participant confidence in accuracy predicted by emotional impact as hypothesized. Results also indicate that, contrary to the notions of investigators and jurors, witnesses become more inaccurate over time regardless of their confidence in their memories, even for highly emotional events.



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