Symbol of remembrance triggers mass false memory

There’s an interesting short research report in Cortex about how a national symbol adopted in Italy after the 1980 terrorist bombing of Bologna train station likely instilled a false memory about the following 16 years.

On the morning of August 2nd, 1980, at 10.25, a bomb exploded in Bologna Centrale station, killing eighty-five people wounding over 200.

The blast also stopped the large station clock on the side of the building at the moment of the explosion, freezing the hands in the 10.25 position. Shortly afterwards, the clock was repaired and it continued to function normally for 16 years.

However, when it broke in 1996, it was decided to leave the clock in its broken state and permanently set the hands at 10.25 in remembrance of the tragedy, owing to the fact that the image of the frozen clock had been widely used in commemorations during the intervening years.

A group of Italian psychologist were aware that repetition tends to cause false memories and decided to test residents of Bologna, all familiar with the station, for their memory of the clock.

What they found was that the majority of people falsely remembered that the clock had been frozen since the bombing and never worked since, despite the fact that this was never the case.

This included those who had regularly seen the clock working fine, presumably on a daily basis, owing to the fact that they worked at the station during the 16 intervening years.

Of the 173 participants who knew that the clock is now stopped, 160 (92%) stated that the clock has always been broken. 127 (79%) further claimed to have seen it always set at 10.25, including all 21 railway employees. Most interviewees did not know that the clock had been working for over 16 years and stated that it had always been broken.

From the 173 people who knew that at the time of testing the clock was stopped, a subgroup of 56 citizens who regularly take part in the annual official commemoration of the event has been further considered: only six (11%) of them correctly remember that the clock had been working in the past.

The findings are an interesting parallel to a study published last year on the London bombings. The researchers asked participants about their memories of seeing TV footage of the bus exploding in Tavistock Square.

Despite the fact that no such footage exists and no reconstruction was ever shown on TV, 40% of British participants ‘remembered’ seeing it and produce ‘details’ of the coverage when asked.

Link to study on Bologna bombings.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to summary of London bombings study.

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