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Schema Theory and Flashbulb Memory Theory: an Analysis of Both Theories of Memory

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IB Psychology: Memory Essay

Using at least 3 studies as evidence, which is the most reliable theory of memory: Schema Theory or Flashbulb Memory Theory?

Although both theories of memory; schema theory and flashbulb memory theory are both useful and reliable when evaluating cognition, there are both advantages and disadvantages of both. It is these advantages and disadvantages, along with supporting studies that will be used in order to determine which theory of memory is the most reliable.

A schema is a cognitive framework that allows us to organize the knowledge that we have stored in our memories. Schemas are mental representations of how we categorize different aspects of the world such as people, objects and events. Schema theory simply states that all knowledge is organized into various schema. The knowledge that is stored in our memories are organized into various schema, that ultimately represents our general knowledge of the world, people, situations 0etc.

Frederic Bartlett (1932) shows that schemas not only have an influence on a person’s ability to recall information, but also that culture plays a role in the processing of schema. The aim of the study was to determine the ways in which cultural and social factors influence schema and how they can lead to distortions of memory. The participants used in the experiment were British students. The participants were not aware of the aim or purpose of the study. They were asked to read a Native American folktale called “The War of the Ghosts.” The participants’ memory of the story was tested when they were asked to recite the story several times after a particular amount of time. The results of the experiment showed that as the number of reproductions increased, the length of the story became shorter and more changes were made. An example of this change is what was initially ‘hunting seals’ and ‘canoes’ transformed into ‘fishing’ and ‘boats.’ The aspects of the story that changed were things that were “culturally unfamiliar to the English participants.” Bartlett found that these alterations made the story more “normal” and understandable to the participants because they are more familiar to their schemas (their experiences and cultural background). This study shows that memory is inaccurate because it can always be altered in order to fit into pre-existing schemas. It also shows that schema theory is useful when trying to understand “how people categorize information, interpret stories and make inferences.”

Another study that demonstrates schema theory is by French and Richards (1933). The aim of this study is to determine the influence that schema has on memory retrieval. There were three different conditions in the experiment. In the first condition, participants were shown a clock with roman numerals (the number four was represented as “IIII” on this clock instead of the standard “IV”). They were then asked to draw the clock from memory. In the second condition, participants were showed the same clock and had to draw it from memory. The only difference was that they were told prior to seeing the clock that they were going to have to draw it from memory. In the third condition, the clock remained visible to the participants while they drew it, it was not removed. The findings of the study showed that in the first two conditions, participants used the conventional representation for the number four, “IV”. In the third condition, participants used the unique notation for the number four, “IIII” because they were able to copy it directly from the clock. French and Richards explained that the participants used “IV” instead of “IIII” because their schematic knowledge of roman numerals. This experiment shows that our schemas influence our ability to recall on memory.

One strength of schema theory is that is supported by a variety of different research. Supporting studies show that schemas affect memory in ways that are both positive and negative and that schema theory is useful when deciphering how memory is categorized, how conclusions are made, how stories are interpreted and how memory is distorted.

There are not many studies that assess the limitations of schema theory. There are also several areas that are unclear regarding schema theory, such as: how schemas are created, how they influence memory and how schemas are chosen during categorization. Schema theory has also been deemed as too vague to be useful, according to Cohen (1933). Although schema theory can be used to explain how new information is categorized by old knowledge, it doesn’t provide any explanation regarding information that is completely new and is unrelated to the existing knowledge.

Flashbulb memories are emotional memories that are formed directly after a traumatic event and are never forgotten—they are encoded into our memories like a picture, hence the name.Flashbulb memories are more unique because they tend to be more detailed, accurate, easier to recall, consistent (meaning that they do not alter overtime) and they last longer.

Flashbulb memory there was created by Brown and Kulik (1977). The aim of their study was to investigate flash bulb memories and to determine how it works. There were 80 American participants that were used in the experiment. Half of them were African Americans and the other half were Caucasian Americans. The participants were given 10 questions to answer about different events. Out of the 10 events, 9 of them were assassinations (or attempts) of well-known American public figures. The last event was one was a personal event that each of the participants chose. This even had to have involve “self-shock.” The participants were then asked how much they went over these events, either overtly (discussing with other people) or covertly (thinking about it privately). The findings showed that 90% of the participants were able to recall what happened with regards to J.F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. African Americans recalled more flashbulb memory of assassinations of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King more than the Caucasian Americans did. The majority of the self selected events were traumatic, like a death of a family members. This study supported Brown and Kulik’s (1977) theories of flashbulb memory and showed that it influences our ability to recall memories. One strength of flashbulb memory theory is that most of the studies involve real life events and people’s reactions and memories concerning them. This means that the ecological validity of these studies are high. One weakness of this theory is that these studies are not as reliable because they can’t be duplicated. It is therefore impossible to see if the results are consistent.

In conclusion, schema theory is the most reliable theory of memory because it is supported by a number of different reliable studies.

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Schema Theory and Flashbulb Memory Theory: An Analysis of Both Theories of Memory. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from
“Schema Theory and Flashbulb Memory Theory: An Analysis of Both Theories of Memory.” GradesFixer, 10 Apr. 2019,
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