Survey: Brits often remember historical events more clearly than personal ones

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The majority of British adults find it easier to remember details surrounding key historical events than significant moments in their own lives, including the death of a loved one or the birth of their first child - that’s the verdict of a compelling new research project released today.

The study, which was commissioned to mark the launch of UKTV’s new history channel Yesterday, was led by Professor Geoff Beattie who asked 300 people to recall exact details of 32 personal and historical memories ranging from their first kiss to the death of Princess Diana. The research team then compared the group’s ability to recall their memories of these events in detail.

The results highlight the presence of ‘Flashbulb Memories’ which are created during a personally significant or shocking event of national or international importance and which often overshadow memories of personal events. The study found that news of the 9/11 attacks was remembered in extreme detail by 82% of respondents compared to the birth of a first child, which could only be recalled at the same level of detail by 65% of respondents.

The shocking events of 9/11 have ingrained themselves on the nation’s memory to such an extent that 81% of participants could recall who told them about 9/11, 84% remembered what time it was when they heard about it, 92% knew where they were when they heard the news and 71% recalled their ongoing activity. This represents an extraordinary level of recollection after nearly eight years.

Memories surrounding Princess Diana’s fatal car crash are also very strong, a surprising 62% of the participants could remember details of exactly when they were told about the tragedy, who told them, where they were and what they were doing at the time. This compared favourably with many personal memories; 50% could recall their first child’s first birthday and a mere 46% of the same group were able to recall significant details about their first day at secondary school.
The study found that the 7th July London bombings also provided extremely vivid ‘Flashbulb Memories’ for 58% of respondents, whereas only 38% of people could remember their first major argument with their current partner in the same level of detail.

The research suggests that time does not diminish memories of certain momentous historical events. It may be almost 46 years since JFK was assassinated but 52% of the respondents who were old enough to remember still had extremely clear memories of that day, and can even remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

The study also highlighted the least memorable events in recent history including Torvill and Dean’s perfect score of 6.0’s for the Bolero at the 1984 Olympics with only 25% of people being able to remember it with any clarity. This was closely followed by New Labour sweeping to victory in the 1997 general election which could only be recalled in detail by 24% of the study group. A similar number of people struggled to remember details of Gary Barlow’s teary announcement when Take That split up in 1996 which would suggest that the band are perhaps even more popular now than they were back then.

The top five Flashbulb historical memories and personal memories are outlined below:

Top five Flashbulb historical memories

9/11 - (82%)
Princess Diana’s death - (62%)
July 7th London bombings - (58%)
The assassination of JFK - (52%)
Boxing Day Tsunami - (41%)

Top five personal memories

Death of a close relative - (81%)
Passing driving test - (79%)
First date with current partner - (76%)
Wedding day - (72%)
First kiss - (66%)

The findings reveal the reason we’re able to recall some historical events over and above personal memories is due to the way the human brain records them. When a cultural event takes place, it triggers a primitive survival mechanism which results in the memory being encoded so that it stays with you until the day you die.

Professor Geoff Beattie from the University of Manchester says: “The Yesterday Historical Study provides a fascinating insight into our recollection of key cultural events many years after they’ve happened. While we’re constantly reminded about personal milestones such as our wedding day or our children’s birthdays through photographs or family gatherings, we rarely talk about the big historical moments, and yet we remember where we were, what we were doing, and even the exact time of day that we heard about them with absolute clarity years afterwards.”

Richard Kingsbury, Yesterday’s Channel Head says: "The premise of Yesterday is that world events and cultural memories we remember through television are very much part of who we are. The surprising aspect of this research is just how powerful these memories are. Yesterday will be a place where we can re-live those moments and in doing so understand more about who we are and what has shaped us."

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