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Was the 2016 Presidential Election Anything Like We Remember?

By: Paige Graham

Every four years, American citizens pick who we want to oversee our lawmaking, lead our armies, and maintain our relations with other countries. Our memories of important events like elections tend to be much more vivid than normal memories, almost like our brain took a picture or video of the event. But momentous occasions like the most recent presidential election may not be as well-remembered as we think.

These vivid, often emotional memories are known to psychologists as “flashbulb memories,” and are so named because they feel as accurate as snapshots from a camera. Flashbulb memories can be good or bad, and relate to public or private events. You probably have flashbulb memories of your first kiss, or when you were accepted into Elon, or learning a loved one had died. Most Americans born before 1995 have vivid memories about what they were doing when they learned about 9/11, and more than 20 different studies have used this event to research flashbulb memories.

The day before Fall 2019 classes started at Elon, psychologists from West Virginia University published a study in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, using the 2016 presidential election as a base for flashbulb memories. They surveyed undergraduate students about the circumstances about the circumstances of first hearing the election results. The participants were surveyed about a week after the results were released, and again about 5 months later. Previous studies have shown flashbulb memories change over time when surveyed immediately following the event, but these researchers wanted to see if giving people time to process the event made flashbulb memories more consistent.

“There are of course things I’ve forgotten because it was almost four years ago now, but I think mostly everything I remember…is pretty accurate to what actually happened,” answers Elon senior Destynee Spieker when asked how truthful she feels her memories of the election are.

Being on campus as the election was happening, she remembers reading articles on the campaign for her Global Experience class and watching the election process on the TV in her common room. However, she had to leave before the results were announced, and found out the next day. She doesn’t actually have a specific memory about when she learned the results, but she remembers the process as an important collection of memories, more memorable than her everyday memories. She said her paying attention to the 2016 election was “…the most information [she’d] ever had about like a specific political event.”

When asked to simply describe when they heard the 2016 election results, participants’ stories varied wildly. There was a measly 27% consistency between the two surveys, with 60% of ideas from the first survey being left out and 48% of the ideas in the second survey being brand-new. When analyzing the data, researchers claimed:

“…some participants provided a[n account] that appeared so different we rechecked the narratives to be sure that they were provided by the same person.”

Alternatively, people were much more consistent when asked specific questions about what they were doing when they heard the election results, with a 78% consistency between the two surveys. Asking about the day and place they heard the news provided the most consistent answers, whereas the aftermath and emotional reaction was most likely to change over time. However, this consistency may be lower, since answers were only recorded as inconsistent when they differed, not when statements were more generalized or more specific.

Despite the strong emotions and vividness tied to flashbulb memories, many other studies have shown they significantly change over time. One study even found flashbulb memories to have the same forgetting rate as everyday memories. So why do we feel so confident in the details surrounding these important moments? According to multiple studies, hindsight bias could be an answer.

Hindsight bias is sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” fallacy. It states the predictability of an event goes up in our memories after it’s happened. When you watch a sports team win a game, have you ever suddenly “remembered” a gut feeling that the team was going to win? Or were you ever stumped by a hard question, only to call the same question easy once you know the answer? That’s hindsight bias at work.

The worrying thing about hindsight bias is it can still occur even when we try to avoid it. A study at California State University in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology looked at this phenomenon using the 2012 presidential election results. They found political knowledge reduces hindsight bias when participants were asked to guess the results beforehand and recall these predictions later. However, when participants didn’t make these predictions and were asked to guess what they would have said, political knowledge has no effect on hindsight bias. Hindsight bias has even been linked to believing in conspiracy theories!

Even though memories can shape how we live our lives and how we see ourselves, psychologists still don’t fully understand how they work. One thing they do know is that memories are not permanent records of events, even though they can feel genuinely accurate. Destynee did not have the best memory for how and with whom she learned who won the election, but she does remember where she was pretty well. And this information is more likely to be accurate than the method with which she learned the results. There are things our brains do that can distort a memory, like hindsight bias. But specific memories can still be valid, even if they’re not completely true. So, despite forgetting and biases, your memories of the 2016 election are probably a good record of what actually happened…just not a perfect one.

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