Cover Story

Americans, for the most part, quite clearly recall the facts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, right down to how many planes were hijacked, where they hit and which airlines were involved. They remember much less about the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. That's not just because it happened a longer time ago, says psychologist William Hirst, PhD, a memory researcher at the New School for Social Research.

In a Lexis Nexis analysis, Hirst found that major media outlets barely covered the Challenger compared with the barrels of ink and millions of pixels they've devoted to 9/11.

"To the extent that the media continues to talk about 9/11, the more our memories of the attacks are solidified," says Hirst. "We as a society came to believe that we have to talk about this all the time. We decided that this will be important, with an accompanying memory-strengthening effect."

Memory researcher David Rubin, PhD, agrees. Television images of the falling towers and smoking Pentagon were so compelling, he says, that it's common for people to mistakenly think they learned of the attacks on television, rather than from a friend. This pattern was first found in research by psychologists Ulric Neisser, PhD, and Nicole Harsch, PhD, published in the book "Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of 'Flashbulb Memories'" (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Two years after the Challenger disaster, almost half of 42 Emory University students surveyed by the researchers claimed they'd learned of the incident on television. Only a fifth of them made that claim right after the explosion.

"Seeing it on TV is riveting and having a friend tell you about it is not riveting," explains Rubin. "You feel like a part of history saying you saw it live, when really it was the 16th replay."

—B. Murray Law