Home > Cognitive Bias, Memory > Life was Never that Rosy, but Look Up

Life was Never that Rosy, but Look Up

If you’ve ever watched Disney’s Pixar movie Up (and if you haven’t, beware of spoilers), you might remember Carl and his late wife Ellie’s adventure book called ‘Stuff I’m Going to Do’. The movie shows Carl remembering happy memories as he flips through the book, such as when he and Ellie got married and when they went on a picnic. But where are the flashbacks of the time their house partially got destroyed by a fallen tree or when Ellie had an unfortunate miscarriage? Well, the obvious reason is because it’s a movie by Disney and Pixar, so it can’t be too sad for children watching. The less obvious reason is that Carl fell victim to rosy retrospection!

Scene of Carl Fredericksen reminiscing memories of his late wife Ellie from Up by Disney’s Pixar.

Rosy retrospection is a common phenomenon that people face when recalling events that happened in the past. Memory is reconstructive, meaning that memories can be lost, altered, and added due to internal and external forces. Memories can be changed internally by oneself, such as if you thought you saw a news report on television when in reality your friend told you about the incident. This example is known as source misattribution, Memories can be altered by an external force, such as if investigators ask leading questions to a victim in a case. This is an example of suggestibility. Questions or statements that include misinformation, or false information, apart from what really occurred, have potential to change how people remember incidents because people are not aware of how easily their memories can be altered. The Titus case is a prominent example of the concerns with and dangers of reconstructive memory, since an innocent man was charged with a crime due to inaccurate eyewitness testimonies formed by memory alterations. Changes in memory can lead to false memories, which are memories that are remembered differently from what occurred in reality.

Remembering is as if you are trying to rewrite your memories, since you are able to edit them, such as crossing out unwanted details.

The given examples of memory changes are examples of what are known as the Seven Sins of Memory (Schacter, 1999). Another one of the sins of memory is bias, in which memories are changed to a way that is favorable to the person that is remembering. Biases usually occur because people want to maintain a coherent self-image. In other words, people tend to form a kind of trajectory to describe their life and why they are the person they are today. One’s beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes in the present affect how one remembers the past. Schacter (1999) mentions psychologist Spiro (1980), who conducted a study to understand biases in memory by asking participants to read a story about a character who wished to marry his girlfriend but did not want children. However, participants were told one out of the two outcomes to the story, in which the girlfriend agreed on not having children or she was upset because she did want children, as well as if the two characters married. Spiro (1980) found that when participants read the version of the story in which the main characters agreed on not having children and got married or when they did not agree and did not marry, the participants made no errors when asked to remember parts of the story. This was the case most likely because the outcome of the relationship matched the participants’ expectations and preexisting knowledge about relationships. However, when the outcome did not match the participants’ expectations and beliefs (when the main characters married despite differences or split though they agreed on not having children), participants remembered information that was not mentioned in the story in order to better explain the outcome, such as that the main characters married because they believed that their love was more important than their conflict over having children or that their parents had an argument. This further provides evidence of how people form biases in their memory in order to match and be favorable to the present situation.

Rosy retrospection is a type of bias in memory. People view and describe their past events more positively than when they experienced them in order for their memories to be favorable to them in the present and, therefore, have a rose-colored, optimistic filter on those memories. Mitchell and Thompson (1994) first introduced the phenomenon by explaining that there are three stages in which rosy retrospection occurs. The first stage is rosy prospection, during which one holds a positive expectation for the experience. Continuing with the Up example, Carl most likely had high expectations for his marriage life with Ellie, since he loved her so much. The second stage is dampening, which is when one does not view their current experience to be as favorable as they expected, such as when Ellie had a tragic miscarriage. The final stage is rosy retrospection, in which people look back at the event more favorably, such as when Carl reminisced only the happy memories of Ellie. Overall, rosy retrospection can allow people to boost their self-esteem as they remember the times when they were happy. People may constantly reminisce the past to try to experience the euphoric feelings from before because they believe that they are not as happy in the present.

You might wonder what happens with bad memories because, well, not all of our memories consist of joyful feelings. Though Mitchell & Thompson (1994) noted that a rosy filter may not appear for bad memories, a study by Wilson, Meyers, and Gilbert (2003) showed that people actually rationalize negative events. In their study, many participants claimed to have been happier much after they received low scores on a social aptitude test than when they actually were immediately after receiving low scores. They found that people reasoned out that they would not have been too upset over a single score. Wilson, Meyers, and Gilbert suppose that people tend to rationalize their negative experience to minimize its impact on themselves. Rationalization can actually be quite useful because one can realize that negative events may have a small impact on their life. Since both Ellie and Carl from Up rationalized their view of the miscarriage, they were able to move on and look forward to fulfilling their childhood promise to move to Paradise Valley in South America (until, of course, Ellie became sick and passed away). Carl also rationalized when he came to terms with his Ellie’s death, so he was able to continue achieving his dream of adventuring out into the world.

Remember this queue to ride the Space Mountain roller coaster? (notice the coincidental pink hue)

In contrast, memories for events that are closely tied to feelings of excitement are highly susceptible to rosy retrospection. To provide an example of rosy retrospection that may elicit exciting memories in your life, think of the last time you were on vacation or on a trip. Not to burst your bubble, but no matter how much fun you think you had at a place, such as Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth, it is likely that your experience at the time was much different than how you remember. Did you remember the overpriced food, almost getting lost, and waiting hours for the Space Mountain roller coaster only for it to break down during your ride (which, believe me, was highly disappointing)? Mitchell, Thompson, Peterson & Cronk (1997) noticed that rosy retrospection was evident no matter what the event was, as they observed a range of events from a trip to Europe, Thanksgiving break, to a bicycle trip. They found that people view these events to have been more enjoyable than when people actually experienced them. This was because during the event, people felt as if their expectations were not met and they had less control over the experience, such as if an argument erupts over a Thanksgiving dinner or if there is bad weather during a bicycle trip. However, after the event, people typically did not remember their disappointments and mostly remembered the parts that made their experience enjoyable, such as the food in the Thanksgiving dinner or spending time with friends on the bicycle trip. It is most probable that people remembered their initial excitement and final satisfaction for the event when asked to recall their experience. People may have formed a trajectory by filling in the memory of their feelings when the event was actually experienced with positive expectations they had at the beginning and with preexisting knowledge about their final satisfaction, ultimately reconstructing the true memory of the event. That is to say, people most likely infer that they had an overall positive experience because they rely on their positive attitudes from before and after the event.

Though rosy retrospection can be beneficial because it allows one to feel temporarily happy in the present, it has its drawbacks due to potential long term effects. Failing to acknowledge all the truths about the past can cause one to believe that the past is always better than the present and hopelessly wish for it. Wirtz, Kruger, Scollon, and Diener (2003) found that the more positively people remember an event, the more likely it is for them to repeat it, which was observed in students and their perspective on their spring break. Because rosy retrospection causes one to omit the negative aspects of the memory of an experience, one may end up repeating the same mistakes or feeling the same negative feelings if they fulfill their desire to repeat their experience. This can be seen in a romantic relationship long after a breakup. Sometimes, people may only remember the times they were happiest with their partner and slowly develop a desire to restart the relationship or give their partner another chance, ignoring the reasons that led to a breakup. In other words, the filter on one’s memories can be problematic because people may not realize the challenges they had previously faced. If Carl from Up did not come to terms with Ellie’s death by removing the rosy filter he used to look at his past, he would still be stuck in a cycle of remembering only the happy memories with Ellie, wishing for the past, and then becoming more and more unhappy and grouchy. Carl would be stuck in a depressive state forever because of his belief of himself that he can never be happy as he was with Ellie. He would have maintained his life trajectory in which he compared the image of his past self too much to who he is not anymore without his late wife.

Hopefully by the end of this blog, I haven’t just taught you to believe that your view of your past is all false. We just have to be mindful that our recollections of the past may not be fully accurate because of influences from our present beliefs and knowledge, especially about our self-image. I want to emphasize the significance of considering the present to be just as positive and meaningful as one might remember the past to be. It is important to note that your perspective on the past may heavily affect your future as you make decisions based on prior experiences and expectations. Ellie had written in Carl’s book thanking him for the adventure she had with him and tells him to go and create a new one. Because Carl accepts his reality without Ellie, his character develops as he stops focusing on his past memories and continues adventuring with his new friend Russell. He is able to create a new life trajectory in which he learns to inspire others with his adventures even without Ellie. As we start the new year, let us also try to remove the rose-tinted glasses we have used to look at the past and have a hopeful (with moderation) vision of 2020 while going on new adventures.

 

References

Mitchell, T.R., & Thompson, L. (1994). A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy prospection & rosy retrospection. Advances in Managerial Cognition and Organizational Information Processing, 5, 85-114.

Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “Rosy View.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421–448. doi: 10.1006/jesp.1997.1333

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist54(3), 182–203. doi: 10.1037//0003-066x.54.3.182

Wilson, T. D., Meyers, J., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). “How happy was I, anyway?” A retrospective impact bias. Social Cognition, 21(6), 421–446. doi: 10.1521/soco.21.6.421.28688

Wirtz, D., Kruger, J., Scollon, C. N., & Diener, E. (2003). What to do on spring break? Psychological Science, 14(5), 520–524. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.03455

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  1. December 13th, 2019 at 16:19 | #1

    Wow, awesome blog! I didn’t realize how detrimental rosy retrospection was. I always thought that it simply meant we think about things as better than they actually were, but you make a good point about being aware of memory distortions and appreciating the present! I wonder if there is a bias that is opposite to rosy retrospection where we remember something as worse than it was. You mentioned that we rationalize bad experiences, so could rumination be the opposite of that where we are stuck in a vicious cycle of doubts and anxiety?

  2. December 14th, 2019 at 21:13 | #2

    Thanks Nhi! You make a great point about what could be the opposite of rosy retrospection. There is a cognitive bias called declinism, which is not necessarily the opposite of rosy retrospection since it is also similar in that people view the past more favorably. However, it’s a phenomenon in which people specifically view the future to be negative and that society is declining. I stumbled upon this page if you are interested in learning more!

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