Flashbulb memories of JFK’s assassination may not be so accurate

On Nov. 22, 2003, the nation will mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. The 1963 event was so surprising and traumatic, that many people who were alive that day claim they can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

However, an expert in collective memory at Washington University in St. Louis claims those memories may not be as accurate as people think.

Collective memory expert says you may not remember as well as you think exactly what you were doing when you heard the news of JFK's assassination.
A collective memory expert says you may not remember as well as you think what you were doing when you heard the news of JFK’s assassination.

“There is a lot of evidence that suggests we aren’t as accurate with these flashbulb memories as we think we are, and sometimes, the memories are just wrong,” says James V. Wertsch, Ph.D., the university’s Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences and a professor of psychology. “Flashbulb memory is a bit of a misnomer. In general, we can be fairly certain about the broad outlines of these memories, but the details that flash in our minds oftentimes are not from the event itself but the way we rehearse the event afterwards.”

Wertsch, author of “Voices of Collective Remembering,” says that with flashbulb memories — those we think we have preserved in our minds as vividly as if we had a photo taken at the moment — “people are trying to understand psychologically what was going on. An awful lot of the story gets made up, not during the event but during the initial re-telling of the story. We are traumatized by the event so we tell people how we heard about it. As the story is told repeatedly, it kind of grows and evolves,” Wertsch explains.

Researchers are not exactly sure how long it takes for flashbulb memories to begin to distort, but “it very well may be that the process of change and distortion begins as soon as we start telling and re-telling these stories right after the event,” Wertsch says.

However, age can have an effect on how flashbulb memories are recalled, says Wertsch. “One of the things we know from memory studies is that events that happen to you roughly between ages 18 and 25 form an awful lot of your world view, political interpretation and framework for the rest of your life. That memory retention has a lot to do with the formation of the self during those years. People tend to be able to remember much of what they did during those years, so if a traumatic world event occurs, they are much more likely to remember it in more vivid detail.”

‘Real threat to our world order’

Why is it that traumatic events, like JFK’s death or the events of 9/11, and not positive, happy events, seem to trigger these “flashbulb” memories?

“These big, traumatic events are a real threat to our world order and they are a real threat even to ourselves,” Wertsch says. “We begin to wonder if our children will grow up in a world where people can’t travel on airplanes. When Kennedy was shot, we wondered if the United States really was a sick society, capable of assassinating its own president. If that could happen, what else was going to take place?”

“I can personally recall when JFK was elected president,” Wertsch says. “I admired him and it was a big event for me. However, I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing. But I do remember — or at least I think I remember — exactly where I was when he was shot.”

Wertsch suggests that these flashbulb memories are our way of personalizing the traumatic events into our own life narratives.

“When an event like that happens it is kind of ‘out there.’ We need to personalize it and talking about the memory to other people helps to do that,” says Wertsch, who is director of the university’s International and Area Studies program and also holds appointments in the programs in Social Thought and Analysis and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology, and in the Department of Education in Arts & Sciences.

“Traumatic events like JFK’s assassination really stay with us, probably because they are a threat to the ‘big’ implicit narrative that provides the framework within which we make sense of ourselves,” Wertsch says. “When JFK was shot we didn’t expect that to happen. We didn’t expect the events of 9/11 to happen. When events like that take place, they bring the big narrative into question and almost make the ground beneath our feet quake. Because we are no longer quite sure what the big narrative is, we don’t know how things are going to turn out.”

Traumatic events also greatly affect our personal lives, our “little narratives.” “After 9/11, or after JFK was shot, our lives changed forever. The personal life narrative you thought you knew is now up for grabs in a way you hadn’t considered. A new story has been created and we don’t know how this one will end. It’s scary.”

Forty years later, as we look back on the assassination of JFK, it still looms very large over our collective conscious. How will we perceive the events of Sept. 11, 2001, 38 years from now?

“If — and that is a very big if — we don’t have a repeat or worse event, then my hunch is that we will remember it as less traumatic than we thought in its immediate wake,” Wertsch says. “However, its long-term impact on our memories and lives will differ, depending on how old we were on that date and our proximity to the events.”