Home > Memory > POV: You are in 2022—nostalgic rosy retrospection in the time of Covid-19

POV: You are in 2022—nostalgic rosy retrospection in the time of Covid-19

Have you ever watched those short videos on Tik-Tok with titles like “POV: You are in 20XX” that are supposed to invoke nostalgic emotions in you? When such videos were recommended to me and I scrolled through their comments quickly, I often saw people saying things like “Everything used to be better before Covid” and “I would do anything to go back to 2016”. The number of such videos increased rapidly in recent years after the pandemic started with a speed so fast that makes me wonder what causes people to linger over those “good old days”. After all, are those days really as good as people assume they are, and why did such videos start to go viral in the pandemic era? Well, consider the saying “look through rose-colored glasses”—this is what psychologists have found about the way people look into their past, and the effect of Covid-19 on people’s memories seem to have deepened the “rosiness” of those glasses.

Rosy retrospection is the idea that we see the past through rose hinted glasses.

Rosy retrospection is the tendency for people to evaluate the moments in their recollection in a more positive way than they did when they were actively experiencing it. Even though people may consider the original experiences awful at first, their judgments of unpleasantness tend to fade over time. For example, college students may be familiar with the experience that while taking the SATs used to bring them anxiety and exhaustion, it has now become a minor and easy event in their lives. One possible reason for this phenomenon lies in people’s tendency to make sense of their negative experiences to make themselves feel better. When people feel anxious or stressed, they are likely to use a series of comforting methods called defense mechanisms to protect themselves from such disturbing feelings. Rationalization is a kind of defense mechanism that people use to cope with their stress and emotional conflicts by making explanations of the events that lead to these feelings. In the case of SATs, students may rationalize the anxiety and sadness they got from the tests as necessary for them to get into a good college. This will lead them to consider the negative experiences as valuable.

Now we know that rationalization helps us consider the negative feelings as reasonable. However, how can this reasonability change our memories of SAT from suffering to a piece of cake? After all, just because it makes sense to be stressed does not mean that the stressful memories will disappear. To understand this, we need to first discuss the reconstructive nature of memory, an important basis for many mistakes we made in our memory system. By saying that our memory is a reconstructive process, it means that we input our memories in pieces scattered in the brain. The memories are stored in different places with connections to each other like a huge web. When we need to recover those memories, we will rely on our schema, a general knowledge structure about certain events, to place the pieces of information back together. This whole process is like how we scatter a set of puzzles and piece them together again. Because this knowledge structure depends on our previous experiences and knowledge, the memory reconstruction is often influenced by internal stereotypes and biases. Consider an old but classic experiment by Bartlett in 1932. In this study, subjects from 20th century England read about a Native American folktale. Then, during the recall session, researchers found that the participants tend replace native Indian details in the story with things they are more familiar with based on their cultural biases (e.g., replace “canoes” in the story with “boats”). This bias that influences people’s memory is also one of the seven sins of memory suggested by Daniel Schacter.

Self-serving bias leads us to blame others for our failures.

It is such biases that change our memories in a rosier direction. When people rationalize their failures to drive away anxiety and stress, one bias called self-serving bias arises from this process. In self-serving bias, people tend to blame others and the situation for their past failures and take the credit for themselves for their past successes. This bias thus influences how we reconstruct our memories in a rosy way based on how we want to make sense of those experiences. For example, if we fail a test, the self-serving bias will lead us to attribute this failure to external factors. We will then place or even create a false piece of memory about such factors when reminiscing about how we take the test. For instance, we may remember the background noise in the classroom to be bigger than it actually was and disturbed how we answered the questions. This will make the memory of failure more acceptable since it is not “our fault”. Thus, self-serving bias changes our memories to be rosier than they actually are through the memory’s reconstructive nature.

Now, think again about people’s reactions to the videos describing lives in the past. Because they have reconstructed their memories with self-serving rationalizations, their memories of the past have generally become more positive than they actually are. But wait a minute–you may think at this moment–why haven’t memories during Covid-19 in the past two years also become one of such rosy retrospections? How does it instead act like a sharp contrast to make people miss things before Covid even more? This difference in people’s memories is likely due to both the characteristics of rosy retrospection and how Covid-19 has changed people’s feelings about memories before and during Covid.

To start with, which event do you think you have more control over? Finishing an assignment on time or preventing Covid-19 from spreading? I believe that most people will choose the first one (and I give my deepest respect to those who choose the second). According to the original research on rosy retrospection, people are more likely to form rosy memories of things they think they have a certain degree of control over. This makes sense if we think about it from the perspective of reconstructive memory. As we are more familiar with accomplishing an assignment than preventing Covid-19 from spreading, we tend to be more familiar with things that we have control over than those we do not. Therefore, we will have a better knowledge structure (i.e., a schema) for familiar things than we do for unfamiliar ones.  This makes it easier for us to reconstruct memories from pieces of things we have control over, including doing so in a rosy way. Since Covid-19-related issues are hard to control for most of us, improving memories about them is much harder than changing other ones. Also, since we now have so many Covid-related issues to deal with daily (let’s start with the masks that make me sleepy during classes), forming rosy memories about common errands has become harder than it used to be.

Quarantine has increased the difficulty for people to distinguish time based on their memories.

If you also find this meme above relatable as I do, welcome to the same boat. Time is really a blurred concept during quarantine, and most of that is because we seem to have no special memories about yesterday, the day before yesterday, or last Monday, to set those days apart. The boredom we get from the regular daily routines during social isolation leads to less distinct episodic memory, the memory for specific experiences in our life. This will make people’s memories during Covid seem more blurred than those in the past. The blurred memories form a sharp contrast to make the past rosy and exciting memories especially vivid. This happens even though the memories may be false due to memory reconstruction. Memories are not only blurred but also damaged by Covid-19 and its social consequences. More specifically, deficits are discovered in people’s attention and working memories associated with Covid-related social situations (i.e., quarantine) and post-Covid symptoms. Working memory has a function to help us decide what information we want to remember for a longer time and what memories we want to recall in the current situation. This system requires attention to function properly, so if we cannot pay enough attention to things around us during quarantine, it cannot work efficiently for us to input and retrieve things. If we cannot input information into our memories from the beginning, we will of course have no memory to reconstruct and recall later. Even for those we managed to encode, the damaged working memory will make its reconstruction less effective. As a result, we will not be able to reconstruct memories during covid in a rosy way even if we want to. In this way, it’s probably easier for us to recall a happy but false memory five years ago than a common activity in quarantine 5 days ago. Thus, in this era of pandemic, we can neither encode memories productively nor reconstruct them in a rosy way successfully during recall, which makes the rosy but fake memories before Covid stand out.

The fixed daily routine during quarantines may easily make us feel bored.

In the end, we may ask a question that we humans love asking–is this good for us? Will this increase in rosy retrospection pose any potential threat to our well-being and, if so, how can we improve the situation? I think this is a hard question to answer. On one hand, as an old Chinese saying goes, we “use history as a mirror to learn what prospers and what fails”. Rosy retrospection may indeed cause us to ignore past failures and make us unable to learn from them, and therefore some people consider rosy retrospection a bad thing. However, on the other hand, rosy retrospection reduces the level of harm we get from past disasters and keeps us optimistic about going into a better future. In this time of the pandemic, to some extent, the rosy retrospections offer us a degree of motivation to fight the virus and rebuild the world to a better form. Thus, it’s important for us to balance our memories of the past and those during covid and prepare ourselves to react positively to future challenges on the way.


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