Memories are easily altered. In some cases, people fondly remember events that never happened. A study in Psychology & Marketing reported participants seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney World, although it would be impossible for the Warner Bros. character to be there.
A more common memory or cognitive bias is rosy retrospection, which is the tendency to remember and recollect events more favorably than when they occurred. It is related to the popular idiom “to see through rose-colored glasses.”
Rosy and distorted memories impact future choices. “The psychological principle of reinforcement posits an automatic association between experience and behavior,” according to Psychological Science. “That is, people repeat experiences that they enjoy and avoid those that they do not. But do people know how much they have enjoyed past experiences?”
Investigating Rosy Retrospection
In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, cyclists were surveyed before, during and after a three-week bicycle tour of California. Many told stories of excessive rain, physical exhaustion and unamusing companions. However, retrospective accounts were considerably rosier, and the same tendency held for Thanksgiving vacations and trips to Europe.
Another study found similar discrepancies for people who visited Disneyland. Nearly all participants were excited to visit a destination called “the happiest place on earth,” but the average experience fell well short. Their assessments showed that experiences were dampened by large crowds, irritable children, hot weather and underwhelming food. Afterward, participants tended to remember the trip as being much more fun than it was at the time.
There are exceptions to rosy retrospection. People can also exaggerate negative aspects of experiences, sacrificing accuracy for entertainment, according to the Association for Consumer Research. “Any theory attempting to explain these shifting evaluations of vacations must account for how the fish you caught grows larger over time, the local food more savory and the already staggeringly incompetent mountain guide even less adroit,” the association suggests.
Implications and Consequences
Is rosy retrospection good for one’s health? Overly positive evaluations of the self can help avoid depression and negative effects, providing a sense of personal control and self-esteem, according to Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson in the book Advances in Managerial Cognition and Organizational Information Processing. From a psychological sense of well-being, there may be no other undesirable consequences apart from a slightly distorted perception of reality.
Although in-the-moment measures of an event may be superior for estimating experience, Psychological Science found that retrospective global evaluations may be superior for predicting people’s future choices. Unfortunately, a function of rosy retrospection is that people’s memory of events is often inconsistent with their self-reported moment-by-moment experience during those events.
Another issue is that rosy retrospection inhibits people’s ability to revise their behaviors and actions. Failure to adjust to feedback is believed to be dysfunctional in a number of ways. “Rosy mechanisms may help to explain why people often seem to repeat the mistakes of the past,” the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology states. Rosy retrospection “may suggest some reasons or circumstances where people learn less from experience than they could or should. Constantly rewriting the past in a favorable light may mean we don’t adjust to the demands of the future.”
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People know that most events have positive and negative moments. However, researchers point to the idea that people fail to consider all that does not happen — moments occurring between the notable events and their reactions to these moments.
The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology found that when judging future events, participants engaged in focalism, or the tendency to focus too heavily on the event in question and not enough on other events. College football fans overpredicted how long the outcome of a game would influence their happiness, but overpredictions lessened when they first considered how much time they would spend on other future activities. The same mechanism is present in retrospection, where focalism can cause people to overestimate how happy they were at the time.
Another possible explanation accounts for rosy retrospection and the tendency to lose track of moments occurring between notable events. Psychological Review hypothesizes that people hold implicit theories used to construct personal histories, and thus their predictions and recollections. When applied to a specific type of event, people guide recollections positively or negatively to support their implicit theories. “An implicit theory of spring break as an affectively intense event may fail to take into account all the break’s relatively neutral moments, resulting in an overestimation of both global positive affect and global negative affect,” according to Psychological Science.
Similar Terms and Concepts
In many cases, people’s anticipation and recollection of events is more favorable than the report of the event when it occurs, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology notes. The authors distinguish this phenomenon as a group of three distinct processes to create a “rosy view.”
- Rosy Prospection: Tendency to anticipate events as more favorable and positive than at the time of the experience.
- Dampening: Tendency to minimize the favorability or pleasure of current events or events that have occurred very recently.
- Rosy Retrospection: Tendency to remember and recollect events more fondly and positively than they were at the time of the experience.
The fading affect bias is also associated with rosy retrospection. The fading affect bias is a healthy coping behavior where the affect associated with a negative event fades more quickly than the affect associated with a positive event. Like rosy retrospection, the fading affect bias can support a positive view of the self, and Applied Cognitive Psychology adds that it may induce individuals to be positive and action-oriented to better face and master life challenges. In Advances in Consumer Research, the fading affect bias is “a reason for the typical ‘rosy view’ phenomenon.”
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