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Seeing the World Through a Rosy-Colored Lens: A Look Into the Reconstructive Process of Memory

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Seeing the World Through a Rosy-Colored Lens: A Look Into the Reconstructive Process of Memory


Jonathan Bertan and Dillon Murphy


Imagine that a few years ago, you embarked on a camping trip with a few friends. Numerous memories were made—both positive and negative. You shared laughs at the campfire, indulged in delectable s’mores, sang campfire songs, and came across many ethereal views of nature. In addition to these fond evocations, you also suffered many itchy bug bites, the weather was sweltering, and you almost ran out of food. However, over time, you may remember and reminisce over the jolly memories while forgetting the unsatisfactory experiences. This phenomenon is referred to as rosy retrospection, a cognitive bias that occurs when one disproportionately judges events more positively after they have happened compared to while they are occurring (Sanders, 2020).


In an early study on rosy retrospection, Mitchell et al. (1997) analyzed people’s recollections of meaningful life events, including a group of students enrolled in a 3-week bicycle trip in California. A month after the trip, the cyclists recalled the voyage as being more enjoyable than they did during the trip. Similarly, Lemm and Wirtz (2013) investigated how marathon runners’ evaluations of their physical and emotional feelings compared before, during, and after running a marathon. Before the race, participants predicted relatively high ratings of physical and mental well-being; however, their self-reported well-being diminished throughout the marathon. Immediately after the race, runners generally remembered feeling better than they reported during the race, and this inflated recollection became stronger after 4 weeks. Thus, the divergence between people’s reports and recollections characterizes rosy retrospection.


In addition to modifying how we remember the past, rosy retrospection can influence our decision-making. For example, Kang and Han (2020) questioned Korean men who had either previously served in the military or those who had not yet served (every healthy Korean male is obliged to serve 21 months in the military). Specifically, participants were asked how much compensation they expected if they were to serve longer than required. Results revealed that men who had already served indicated that less compensation would be satisfactory than those who still needed to serve. Thus, men who had already fulfilled their military obligation were subject to rosy retrospection—evaluating the past more favorably than the present—as they assessed their retrospective military duties in a more favorable light, inclining them to be willing to take less money for an extension of their services. On the other hand, Korean men who had yet to serve in the military had no military service to appraise in retrospect; therefore, they likely did not view the military through a rose-colored lens, making them desire greater compensation for additional service.


Related to rosy retrospection, an individual’s current feelings towards a past event can bias recollections of the initial emotional reaction to the event (Levine & Safer, 2002). For example, Wilson et al. (2003) surveyed college students before and after the 2000 presidential election regarding their happiness based on the results of the election. Participants rated their happiness in the days preceding the election outcome and also rated how happy they expected to feel in the days following learning which candidate had won the race. Four months after the election (which Bush won), participants again assessed their happiness and recalled their happiness levels during the first few days after the election results. Results revealed that Bush supporters recalled being happier 4 months later than they reported shortly after the election, demonstrating rosy retrospection. On the other hand, Gore supporters recalled being less happy than they had reported 4 months prior, which may illustrate a negativity bias.


In contrast to rosy retrospection, the negativity bias involves the tendency for negative events to be more salient, strong, and effective in influencing decisions and memory compared to positive events (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). For example, in the camping trip scenario described above, one who exhibits a negativity bias might better remember the bug bites, hot weather, and shortage of food over time whereas someone displaying rosy retrospection may be more likely to remember the campfire songs, s’mores, and nature hikes. In a study exemplifying the negativity bias, Dreben et al. (1979) found that participants demonstrated greater memory for sentences that described the unpleasant behaviors of a person compared to sentences that described the desirable or neutral behaviors of a person. Thus, learners may sometimes prioritize negative information in memory.


An individual’s expectations along with the constituents of an experience that are attended to could potentially play a role in influencing whether rosy retrospection or the negativity bias occurs. Data suggests that rosy retrospection is more likely to occur for events that are positive (e.g., being promoted), free from important decisions (e.g., purchasing a house), events where one is personally involved (e.g., having a conversation), and situations where one has control over the event (e.g., watching TV; Mitchell & Thompson, 1994). The factors which make one more susceptible to the negativity bias compared to rosy retrospection are less documented and further investigation may offer insight into avoiding succumbing to this negativity bias. Further research should also work to bridge the gap in the nescience regarding which bias is more likely to occur.


Rather than a negativity bias, rosy retrospection can be used to enhance our self-regard and well-being, which is a principal goal for all of us (Adler & Pansky, 2020; Mitchell & Thompson, 1994). To illustrate, imagine you give a good presentation but make a few small mistakes. Rather than obsessing over these mistakes, by engaging in rosy retrospection, you can focus your attention on the talk’s positive facets and conclude that the presentation was successful. Subsequently, you may feel better about yourself and have an elevated sense of self-esteem. However, there may also be a dark side to rosy retrospection as having a rosy bias toward the past may lead people to make poor decisions, and this can explain why people repeat similar past mistakes. For instance, imagine you decide to go to a party instead of studying for a midterm for your class. You end up failing the exam, but you had a thrilling time at the party. As time passes, you focus on how much fun you had at the party, not the exam you failed (i.e., rosy retrospection). The next time you have a midterm, you may choose to go to a party rather than study for an exam, impairing and potentially jeopardizing your academic career. Thus, rosy retrospection may be useful in maintaining self-esteem, but we should be wary of potentially focusing too much on pleasure if it comes at the expense of future decision-making.


In sum, rosy retrospection is the tendency for an individual to evaluate the past more favorably than the present, and the phenomenon is ubiquitous among mankind with many practical applications in contemporary society. Specifically, rosy retrospection may serve as a coping mechanism that can promote self-esteem. When the passage of time allows people to recall events through a rosy lens, this distorted view of reality may be an adaptive process to maintain well-being.



References


Adler, O., & Pansky, A. (2020). A “rosy view” of the past: Positive memory biases. In Cognitive biases in health and psychiatric disorders (pp. 139-171). Academic Press.


Dreben, E. K., Fiske, S. T., & Hastie, R. (1979). The independence of evaluative and item information: Impression and recall order effects in behavior-based impression formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1758-1768.


Kang, H., & Han, B. (2020). An option embedded novel military service system based on cognitive bias theories. Journal of Derivatives and Quantitative Studies, 28, 141-148.


Lemm, K. M., & Wirtz, D. (2013). Exploring “rosy” bias and goal achievement in marathon runners. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36, 66-81.


Levine, L. J., & Safer, M. A. (2002). Sources of bias in memory for emotions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 169-173.


Mitchell, T. R., & Thompson, L. (1994). A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy prospection and 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, 421-428.


Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity, dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296-320.


Sanders, D. (2020). Rosy retrospection-Is it time to hit the panic button? The Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 102, 4.


Wilson, T. D., Meyers, J., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). “How happy was I anyway?” A retrospective impact bias. Social Cognition, 21, 421-446.



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