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Princess Diana's Death, 14 Years On: How Well We Remember

Princess Diana re-emerged in the news this week after a controversial Newsweek story imagined what she would be like at 50. Tina Brown speculated that, had Princess Diana survived the tragic car accident in 1997, she might have gone on to marry a “super-rich hedge fund guy,” date a “high-mindedly horny late-night talk-show host,” sue Rupert Murdoch, become friends with Prince Charles and Carole Middleton, throw herself into humanitarian causes and—of course—get Botox. Many people (including a few at TNR) reacted with horror. But it does raise the question: 14 years after her death, how much is Princess Diana still on people’s minds?

The British remember her death remarkably well. In a British survey taken soon after 9/11, the authors found that the British participants had clearer memories of Princess Diana’s death than the terrorist attacks that had happened just three months before. The study, “Comparing Flashbulb Memories of September 11 and the Death of Princess Diana: Effects of Time Delays and Nationality,” published by Lia Kvavilashvili and Jennifer Mirani in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, asked British and Italian participants to record their memories of Diana’s death and September 11. The study was taken in 2001, four years after Diana’s tragic accident. The authors asked respondents to describe their memories of when they heard the news, answer specific questions about time, place, activity and source, and rate how vivid their memories were, three months after the fact. The authors then scored the answers based on specificity. Among both British and Italian participants, almost all could provide answers to specific questions about 9/11. But when it came to memories of Princess Diana’s death, considerably fewer Italian participants could identify the time (65 percent), place (79 percent), activity (60 percent) and source (86 percent) in their memories of the news. The authors also conducted the same survey just days after 9/11. In that survey, the British remembered the recent attacks with slightly more specificity, but within 3 months, those memories had faded in prominence, and their memory of Diana's death was sharper. Kvavilashvili and Mirani conclude, “Virtually no forgetting appears to have occurred in the formal characteristics of flashbulb memories of the death of Princess Diana in British participants over as many as 4 years.”