Self

The Weird Way Your Mind Tricks You Into Thinking The Past Was Better

Photo: MillaF / /Shutterstock
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When my two oldest boys came home for Christmas a couple of years ago, one of their girlfriends asked to see childhood videos. I popped an aged VHS tape labeled "Matt & Gabe-1997" into the VCR, but I hadn’t viewed the old tapes in years. What if they contained unhappy memories?

Suddenly, my grown sons were two and five again, with their waggish smiles and engaged in innocent brotherly banter. How I wanted to be back in that moment, to whisk them up by the back of their Oshkosh B’gosh denim overalls and fly them like little airplanes around the room, a son on each side!

These weren’t unhappy memories at all! It was a perfect time. They were perfect sons. We were a perfect family! Except, we weren’t.

What is the rosy retrospection bias?

Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they really were. Meanwhile, the present is remembered as being worse than the way things used to be.

Rosy retrospection tricks you into believing that the past was a better time. And though it can be compared to nostalgia, where we yearn for the past, there isn't always a biased recollection with nostalgia.

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The term rosy retrospection is derived from the expression "rose-colored glasses," a phrase used to describe optimists who see situations through an unrealistic point of view. But the origins of this concept date back to ancient Roman times, who referred to it by the Latin phrase memoria praeteritorum bonorum, which translates to "the past is always well remembered."

In 1994, Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson published A Theory of Temporal Adjustments of the Evaluation of Events. In their study, Mitchell and Thompson "examined people's anticipation of, actual experiences in, and subsequent recollection of meaningful life events: a trip to Europe, a Thanksgiving vacation, and a 3-week bicycle trip in California."

The results of the experiment's three groups? "...People's expectations of personal events are more positive than their actual experience during the event itself, and their subsequent recollection of that event is more positive than the actual experience," the study determined.

What is an example of rosy retrospection?

An example of rosy retrospection bias is the music you listened to in the past. For instance, the other day I found myself listening to "Biggest Part of Me" by Ambrosia and reading a YouTube user's recollection of the song.

"These were the times when life made sense. You went through the normal loving, dating, breaking up, getting over it, and moving on. Having a family enjoying the neighbors. Nothing like now. The music was so soothing and so much fun!" the user said.

However, another user recalled it this way: "I graduated from high school when the song first came out. The 80s were my decade. Every day was a sunny day."

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Why does rosy retrospection happen?

The reason we perceive the past more fondly is that we are more likely to think about past events, places, people, and things in the abstract.

If our perception of the past is biased, it can lead to the distortion of our view of the present and negatively paint our expectations for the future.

If we’re able to expand our individual perspective to a broader one, we can more objectively understand that our mind has been playing tricks on us.

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So, going back to the song by Ambrosia, while we swooned to this musical group on the high school dance floor, serious world events were taking place. In 1980, the inflation rate in the U.S. was 13.58 percent; the Iran-Iraq war started; Mount St. Helens erupted, killing 57 people; a summer heatwave in the southern U.S. resulted in over 1,100 deaths in 20 states; and John Lennon was shot dead in New York City.

Unless these events directly affected us somehow, they were unlikely to play much of a role in our personal reminiscences.

In short, it’s all about how your brain processes memories over time.

Older adults tend to look back fondly on the 20-year period of life starting at about age 10 or 11, since a lot of significant life events tend to occur within that timeframe.

First kisses and crushes, high school and college graduations, reunions, proposals, weddings, and starting a family — these are all common nostalgic events that typically happen within those two magical decades.

That’s also when you're saturated in hormones and dopamine and less averse to risk, affecting your decisions and resulting in more memorable events.

Your brain is more adept at remembering how you felt during those times than the precise details of what you did.

Why is rosy retrospection important?

Because our memory cannot be fully trusted, rosy retrospection is a reminder that the contents of your vivid recollections also cannot be fully trusted.

When we remember events from the past in a positive way, we tend to make decisions in a certain way, affecting our future and allowing us to judge any future events unfairly; this also leads to potentially repeating our past mistakes, over and over again.

If you want to avoid being tricked by your brain, it pays to examine our personal evaluations and assumptions about things.

So, while I tend to agree that the music in 1980 was "so soothing and so much fun," I was a teenager then and music played a big part in the creation of my personal memories. Now, I really don’t pay much attention to today’s music. Yet, I’m sure it’s instrumental to the memory-making process of today’s youth.

It’s helpful to understand that older adults just aren’t making memories like they used to. And as I consider more objectively the "Matt & Gabe-1997" VHS tape, I know life wasn’t really better than it is now. I still say it was great, but so is today.

No, it wasn’t a perfect time and we weren’t a perfect family. The boys fought with one another, their mother and I made parenting mistakes, toys broke, and fun events were canceled.

And yet, none of these were captured on video. They are only, loosely, in our memories.

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Brent Roy, ACC, CPLC is a professional career coach and life strategist. He helps clients develop executive presence and reduce imposter syndrome so they can build the confidence they need to thrive in their lives and careers. For more information on his services, visit his website.

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