Sunday, August 28, 2011

Psychology and September 11

Tonight National Geographic Channel presents George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview, "a world premiere documentary that reveals exclusive, first-person insight into the former president's experience following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." I will TiVo this program because I'm not only interested in the political aspects of what the president recalls, but also in the nature of that kind of memory known as flashbulb memory. When we experience an event that causes us strong emotion, such as the 9/11 attacks or the death of a famous person, we frequently feel that we know exactly where we were, what we were doing, who was with us, and so forth, because the memory seems "burned in" by a flashbulb, or seemingly captured in a video in our brains.

Most people know where President Bush was when he learned the planes hit the towers in New York City -- he was in a Florida classroom reading The Pet Goat with elementary students. (Did you think it was My Pet Goat? It's not!) But did you know that the president later gave several different versions in the next four months of who told him about the attacks and what he saw of the attacks on TV? In 2004 psychologist Daniel Greenberg of Duke University did, writing a paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology (PDF here) about these inconsistencies.  In one version, for example, Bush recalled that adviser Karl Rove had told him of the attacks, whereas the video footage clearly indicates it was Andy Card. In another version, he states that he saw on TV the first plane flying into the Twin Towers, yet at that time there was no footage on any channel of that event. I will be very interested to compare Greenberg's paper with Bush's events in the NGC special.

Misremembering 9/11 is not unique to President Bush, of course. Psychology teacher Eric Castro recently tweeted about a Scientific American guest blog by Eric Boustead who was in Manhattan and who gives a very detailed description of some of his experiences of that day - what he watched on TV, neighbors coming together, even enjoying a corn muffin baked by his downstairs neighbor Serena. Later he contacts his former roommate to hear his remembrances, only to learn that their TV was only hooked up for games (thus no TV news), Serena didn't move in until a year later, and the roommate had no memory of the food - as the roommate put it, "I mean why would we be eating muffins during all of that anyway?"

One of the most brilliant insights immediately following 9/11 also came from Duke University, this time from Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin, who brought small groups of undergraduates in on September 12 and asked them to record what their memories were of 9/11. The brilliant part was that they also asked them to record what they remembered of some personal everyday memory that had happened in the preceding couple of days, such as a party, a study session or a sporting event. When they brought the students back one year later, Talrico and Rubin found unsurprisingly that the memories of both flashbulb and everyday memories had similar errors in consistency, but the students rated their confidence in the 9/11 memories much higher. In other words, their memories of both events were equally flawed, but the flashbulb nature of the 9/11 made them believe much more strongly in those memories. (The video above (also linked here) is of cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps describing this study and 9/11 memories in general at the World Science Festival.)

One other quick pointer: the September 2011 issue of American Psychologist is devoted to the events of 9/11 and its effects in many areas, including post-traumatic stress, memory, social consequences, group dynamics and more. The introduction to "9/11: Ten Years Later" can be found here (PDF).

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 will be an interesting challenge for us as psychology teachers. If you are teaching primarily high school juniors and seniors, for example, those students were probably between 6 and 8 years old at the time. Not only will their memories of the event be as fuzzy as everyone else's, but they will have had less of an opportunity to even be exposed to the coverage that day and in the days that followed, as their parents may have shielded them from the news. Nonetheless, they have grown up in the shadow of 9/11 and their lives have definitely been affected by those events. There was a great article in the Washington Post in 2009 about the challenges of teaching students too young to have experienced this firsthand, though some of the frustrations I perceived in that story seem more pointed toward work in general and maybe very little to do with 9/11.

So - how will YOU teach about 9/11? Please add a comment below or e-mail me directly ( and I'll post your reply anonymously.

--posted by Steve


Steve Jones said...

This comment was sent to me via e-mail:

This is my first year teaching psychology. I have always used an HBO documentary called "9 Innings From Ground Zero" to discuss and teach the human toll of 9/11.

The students I'm teaching now range from 2nd grade to preschool in terms of their age at the times of the attack. They know planes hit buildings, they know that we have been fighting over it ever since but they never get a feel for the human toll on those that survived and lost family members.

9 Innings has always been a favorite because it deals with that human side of September 11th. It is also somewhat redemptive in it's presentation of how that particular world series played a positive role in the healing and grieving process.
-- Mike Combs, Watauga High School, Boone NC

Steve Jones said...

This comment was sent to me via e-mail:

In AP Psychogy I will probably use some of the data on flashbulb memory and perhaps a bit on PTSD. Your article actually provoked some great ideas. I will have to wrestle with using Bush's tv interview in my antique classroom.

In English, 9/11 is easier because we can analyze the tone and intent of the commemorative speeches and essays. And the Ground Zero site is excellent for rhetorical analysis and the discussion of the purposes of public art.
-- Clarissa Banda, Schurr High School, Montebello CA