Home > Cognitive Bias, Memory > Take off the rose-tinted glasses: Rosy retrospection and the fallibility of memory

Take off the rose-tinted glasses: Rosy retrospection and the fallibility of memory

If you’ve ever binge-watched The Office, you probably remember the moment in the series finale when Andy Bernard reflects on his days at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Thinking back on his past – on the friends he made and the fun times he had – he says, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Is he right? At the moment he said it, was Andy living in the “good old days?” Why will he be able to think back on that moment as if it were the “good old days” if he can’t see it right now? Five years from now, will we be looking back on 2018 like it was the “good old days?” Cognitive psychology has an answer: yes.

Allow me to explain: we often tend to remember and recollect past events in a more favorable light than when they actually occur. This is called rosy retrospection – have you ever heard of the idiom “to see through rose-tinted glasses?” It refers to the tendency to see something in a positive light, often better than it actually is. This memory bias applies to all of us – and it explains why we often recall the past much more fondly than the present. More generally, rosy retrospection represents one example of the way memory is not as accurate or reliable as we would like to believe. Memory is surprisingly fallible.

So when Andy Bernard, ten years after the series finale, is looking back on his time in Scranton, he most likely will be remembering it all as “the good old days.” He probably didn’t realize it sooner because while he was living in that moment, those weren’t the good old days. Why, then will he perceive them as such sometime in the future? Rosy retrospection! He is tricking himself into believing that time in Scranton is better than it actually was.

Mitchell and Thompson (1994) first described this phenomenon over two decades ago, proposing a three-stage evaluation of events that leads to this so-called “rosy” phenomenon. The first – rosy projection – involves anticipating events more positively than they will be. In other words, if you’re really looking forward to something, you’re more likely to falsely remember it as being more positive after the event. The second stage – dampening – involves minimizing the pleasure of current experiences (compared to past ones). Rosy projection and dampening increase your likelihood of engaging in the third and final stage, which is – you guessed it – rosy retrospection. You’re especially prone to this when an event is a positive one, you’re personally involved, or the event is self-contained (self-contained meaning that the event doesn’t have any important consequences that might possibly affect the way we remember it in the future. For example, imagine you’re taking an important test and the results will affect your admission into graduate school). Research by Walker, Vogl, and Thompson (1997) supports this. They showed that judgments of unpleasantness of an event become less extreme as time intervals increase. Walker et al. (1997) also showed that people were better at remembering pleasant events than unpleasant ones. Ultimately, these results suggest that the emotional intensity of a specific event affects how we remember it later – positive (pleasant) events are more likely than unpleasant events to be retained in memory, and we are more likely to reconstruct them as being more pleasant than they actually were. Once again, this we’re tricking ourselves into believing that we enjoyed past events more than we actually did, demonstrating how inaccurate memories can be.

When we say that memory is a reconstructive process, we mean that every time we think about an event from the past, we don’t “replay” it in our mind exactly as it happened. Instead, we recreate it, relying not only on what we can remember about what actually happened, but also on general knowledge, expectations, beliefs, or assumptions. These reconstructive processes associated with memory retrieval often lead to errors of distortion – we alter them to the point that they are no longer accurate (Johnson and Sherman, 1990). As much as we would like to believe that our memory is perfect, it is actually very flawed. The seven sins of memory refer to seven features of human memory that lead our memory to malfunction (Schacter, 2001). One of the sins, bias, may help to account for rosy retrospection.  Bias refers to the fact that our current feelings, experiences, and knowledge may affect how we remember previous events. Taking into account the fact that we may feel positively about something in general – i.e. we may think of the idea of going to college in a generally positive light – it is important to recognize that these general feelings and attitudes toward an event may affect later memory, even if our own experiences were not quite as great as we thought they were going to be. And the peak-end rule, another cognitive bias, suggests that instead of evaluating an experience based on overall satisfaction, we tend to form our opinions based on an average of how we felt at the most intense moment (the peak) and at the end. In other words, one really good peak moment may color our memory of an entire event, even if the rest of it was subpar. This, too, may explain why we may recall a particularly dull event as having been more exciting overall. It only takes one exciting moment to change our memory, and rosy retrospection only enhances this effect!

Let’s try another example of rosy retrospection: close your eyes and think about the last time you went on vacation. What are you picturing? If you’re like most people, you’re probably remembering relaxing trips to the beach, the delicious food you ate at that restaurant you’d wanted to try since the moment you read the reviews, or the fun you had at the amusement park with your friends. But what about when your little siblings kicked sand into your lunch, the food poisoning from accidentally drinking the tap water, or the hour-long wait just to ride one rollercoaster? You forgot about those, didn’t you? Once again, you can blame rosy retrospection. Memory is a pretty scary thing.

If you go at the right (or wrong) time, it can take hours to get to the front of the line at Disneyland. But as time goes on, people are likely to replace this memory with a more positive one. Source: WDWMagic.

One study showed that when vacationers were asked to rate their vacations shortly after returning, and again a few months later, participants gave significantly higher ratings the second time around. Why?  Their expectations and beliefs regarding what would, to most people, be a positive event, influenced the way in which they reconstructed their memories of their vacations (Mitchell et al., 1997) In the same study, cyclists recalled a three week tour of California positively after time had passed, despite the fact that they struggled through rain and exhaustion while they were on the trip. And Sutton (1992) showed that people who recently returned from a Disneyland vacation tend to pick only the best photos when recalling their trip to others, explaining the “photo-reconstructed” memories of the most positive events. After all, Disney is supposed to be, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” So yeah, memory is fallible – but maybe it’s not such a bad thing in situations like these.

Disneyland: The Happiest Place on Earth. But is it really? Source: Disneyland.

So now that you are aware of rosy retrospection and the fallibility of memory, you might notice yourself falling victim to it in everyday life. Memory may be generally unreliable, but rosy retrospection isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Mitchell and Thompson (1994) showed that positively-biased memories, such as the ones created by rosy retrospection, can help people avoid depression. Still, you should be careful on relying too much on your memories – forgetting the negative aspects of different experiences may lead you to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. But on the bright side, the next time you catch yourself longing for the good old days, you’ll be able to smile – because after all, ten years from now, maybe you’ll be wishing it was 2018 all over again.

 

References:

Johnson, M.K., & Sherman, S.J. (1990). Constructing and reconstructing the past and the future in the present. In E.G. Higgins & R.M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (Vol 2, pp. 482-526). New York: Guilford Press.

 

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, 421-448. doi: 10.1006/jesp.1997.1333

 

Schacter, D. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

Sutton, R.I. (1992). Feelings about a Disneyland visit: Photographs and reconstruction of bygone emotions. Journal of Management Inquiry, 1, 278-287. doi: 10.1177/105649269214002

 

Walker, W. R., Vogl, R.J., & Thompson, C. P. (1997). Autobiographical memory: Unpleasantness fades faster than pleasantness over time. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11, 399-413. doi: 0022-1031/97

  1. nganto20
    May 7th, 2018 at 18:39 | #1

    This post is very interesting! The connections between “the good old days” and reconstructive memory are clear, yet I hadn’t thought about it before reading this. Because the bias partly relies on our expectations of events altering our memory, I wonder how negative expectations would influence a memory of a generally positive experience, Would the memory remain positive because of the actual experience, or would the negative associations alter the memory in such a way that the positivity fades? I’m also curious to see how this relates to flashbulb memories. Does this bias not apply because flashbulb memories are typically of negative events? This would make sense considering that the emotional aspect of the event is characteristic of a flashbulb memory.

  2. May 13th, 2018 at 23:34 | #2

    Hey Lauren! This was a really engaging post! It is interesting that we remember and recollect past experiences in a more positive light than when we are actually living in the moment. Based on what we learned in class about flashbulb memories I would have expected people to retain negative events in their memories more so than positive events. However, as we discussed, people are actually pretty inaccurate when it comes to remembering exactly where they were and how they felt when a tragic event occurs. Additionally, I liked the example you included about people going on vacation and what they remember about their vacations. This reminds me of something I came across when I was researching my bias, the optimism bias. The optimism bias is the cognitive bias that leads us to overestimate the likelihood that positive events will happen in our future and underestimate the likelihood that negative events will happen in the future. Due to this bias, people tend to predict that they will have more pleasure and enjoy their vacation more than they actually end up enjoying the vacation. From the optimism bias we know that people go into a vacation thinking they’re going to have an awesome time, but when they get back they report that the vacation was less enjoyable than they anticipated. From rosy retrospection, we know that people are going to remember only the positive aspects of vacation and omit the negatives when they are asked to recall their vacation. Perhaps when people are asked about their vacation, their expectations of it being this really positive experience (due to the optimism bias) cause them to only remember the highlights that fit their expectations. It would be interesting to further explore how rosy introspection and the optimism bias are related.

  3. larudd20
    May 14th, 2018 at 16:52 | #3

    @Samantha Rizzo Hey Sam! Thanks so much for the comment. When I was doing the original research to be able to write this post, I too was surprised to realize that people often retain positive aspects of memories better than negative ones. Nonetheless, it seems pretty obvious that the seven sins of memory, especially suggestibility and bias, are at work here in the sense that current experiences, knowledge, and others’ ideas about a certain event might affect how we think about and remember things as we reconstruct our memories. It was also very interesting to read a little more about the optimism bias – it seems as if the optimism bias might actually be one of the reasons why rosy retrospection occurs in the first place. As I discussed in my post, rosy projection, part of the three-stage model proposed by Mitchell and Thompson (1994), involves thinking about and anticipating events in a more positive way than you will actually experience them – put simply, we expect better than what we actually end up getting. The optimism bias sounds very similar! I also found that judgments of both pleasantness and unpleasantness of an event become less extreme over time, but that this effect was significantly larger for unpleasant events than for pleasant ones (Walker, Vogl, & Thompson, 1997). It would definitely be pretty cool to dig a little deeper and see how these two biases are intertwined!

  4. swgray20
    May 15th, 2018 at 23:28 | #4

    This post is very interesting and relatable, as I am nearing the end of my sophomore year at Colby. The contributions of dampening and rosy retrospection in remembering past events in a more favorable light than when they occurred is clear and the research you cited supports these notions well. I thought that one particularly interesting finding was that pleasant events were better remembered than unpleasant ones. You later mention the finding from Mitchell and Thompson study (1994) in which positively-biased memories can help people avoid depression. I’m curious if people with major depressive disorder or depressive symptoms would show reduced effects of the rosy retrospection bias. My assumption is that they would, but a lack of processing for emotional memories that are positively-valenced could have a neural basis in memory processing for these people. If there was a way to determine empirically if these people have less activation in brain areas associated with processing of positive memories, there could be a new therapeutic target for treatment. I think that rosy retrospection contributes to a discussion concerning the potential benefits of cognitive biases.

  5. dglang21
    May 16th, 2018 at 12:38 | #5

    This is a really interesting effect and it definitely makes you think twice about everything that you experience! It does make sense though that this would occur; it seems like we’re always eager to make ourselves feel better. This reminded me a lot of the self-serving bias and the need to see things as they work best for us. I wonder how this would affect recollection of a vacation that went terribly wrong. I had one of those happen for me this summer sadly. I still feel bad about the trip, but it is possible that due to this bias I don’t feel as bad about it now as I did before. I sure wish rosy retrospection went to the extreme and helped us forget the bad memories! This also seems to have an interesting relationship to flashbulb memories as mentioned by other comments on this post. Overall, our minds seem to work in very interesting ways when it comes to what we remember or don’t remember. This was a very interesting blog post and it was very well done!

  6. ayue20
    May 17th, 2018 at 12:47 | #6

    Interesting post. I especially liked the saying about how we look at past events through rose-tinted glass. I’m wondering if there is any study about people’ metacognition about this phenomenon. I recently read a paper about how people tended to use experimentally-induced negative emotions less in rating their life-satisfaction if they were directed to notice the bad weather outside. The idea was that people have naive theories about what could affect their thoughts and emotions, and weather was one of them. So, as rational individuals, they “corrected” for the biasing influence of bad weather on their life-satisfaction judgment by discounting their current negative emotions. I wonder if this rosy-retrospection phenomenon is in the repertoire of people’s naive theories and would be corrected for if given the chance.

  7. May 17th, 2018 at 21:04 | #7

    This effect is really interesting to me because I think most people can relate to thinking about “the good old days”. I really liked your explanation of rosy retrospection and how it relates to reconstructive memories. I think it is really interesting that we see memories through a rosy/better lens because we reconstruct memories. I also think it is interesting that the parts of memories that we look back on most are the positive ones. I found this kind of comforting… its nice to know that our memories are in a way optimistic.

  8. May 17th, 2018 at 23:40 | #8

    Great Post. I think starting it with “The Office” was a great idea as it was very attention grabbing, seemed to have worked to since there are so many comments. It was nice to learn about how nostalgia works as I’ve thought about this before when looking back at the past. Tying all this into the reconstructive nature of memory was interesting as I wonder how big the affect from reconstructive memory is on how we feel about them. Are good memories enhanced by it while bad memories made even worse.

You must be logged in to post a comment.