Rosy retrospection: A reason to not trust yourself

The human brain is prone to taking shortcuts and making errors during information processing. Rosy retrospection is an example of this. This article explains how our memory of a certain event transforms over time.

Our brains are weird. For example, I can’t memorise the date of an important research study I might need for an exam but I can remember every word of the Macarena. Yeah, even the Spanish bits. If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me to name the top goal scorer from the 1934 FIFA World Cup, I could tell you that without even opening my eyes, but ask me my mother’s birth date and I would probably ask you who you are and what you are doing in my room at 3 AM! Our brain does a fantastic job of keeping us alive. Unfortunately, it is extremely prone to cognitive biases which may sometimes lead to us to make irrational decisions or actions. The art of thinking clearly is a tough one to master and the first step towards mastering it is to be aware of the different cognitive errors we make. In this blog post, I will be discussing a bias called rosy retrospection, explaining the probable causes and considering its implications.

What is rosy retrospection?

According to management researchers from the University of Washington and Northwestern University, Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, rosy retrospection is one of the three processes that constitute the rosy view effect.

(i) Rosy prospection- a tendency of people to anticipate events as more favourable and positive than they describe the experience at the time of its occurrence.

(ii) Dampening- a tendency for people to minimize the favourability or the pleasure of events they are currently experiencing or events that have occurred very recently.

(iii) Rosy retrospection- a tendency of people to more fondly remember events in the past than they felt about the same event at the time of its occurrence.

They stated that the evaluations of events that people experience can be subject to transformation over time. More specifically, post-event evaluations were likely to be rated as more positive when compared to the experience of the actual event. In 1992, Robert Sutton, an organizational psychology professor from Stanford University, found that people who visited Disneyland had a more positive post-trip recollection compared to what they reported during their trip. Their experience during the trip was dampened by long queues, screaming children and unmet expectations but once the trip was over, after a period of time, they forgot the things that bothered them during their visit and remembered their vacation as a more idyllic time. Mitchell and his team found similar results when the difference between levels of ‘enjoyment’ by participants before, during and after a 3-week bicycle trip across California was measured. The participants remembered the bike trip as more enjoyable, as soon as 1 week after the trip, than they actually experienced it to be at the time. This was further supported by the participants’ own narrative accounts where they reported more negative thoughts during the event than after the event. While the research paper does not include the specific negative thoughts that participants described, I am going to take a wild guess and claim that it was something on the lines of “Tell my mom I love her, I know it’s only been 7 hours since we started, but my legs don’t work and I am pretty sure I am going to die.”

An important thing to remember is that this bias relates to specific events (such as a trip or a holiday) and not a long period of time (such as your childhood). While rosy retrospection is extremely similar to nostalgia, the latter isn’t considered a cognitive bias because it isn’t a product of a biased perspective. Unlike nostalgia, rosy retrospection occurs only when you have positive expectations before a specific event.   Additionally, this rosy effect doesn’t occur during all events. Research has suggested that the bias is generally more likely to occur during events that are initially anticipated as positive, free of significant consequences, and for events where an individual is personally involved and has some control over the outcome.

How does it work?

Researchers have come up with several alternative explanations as to why it occurs.  Back in the 1930s, Frederic Bartlett in his classic research on memory found that when remembering things, our memory undergoes an active reconstruction. This presents an opportunity for various biases to come into play and influence that reconstruction.  Rosy retrospection has been proposed to be a result of a similar reconstruction of memory. They suggested that people’s expectations before an event, which are normally based on social prototypes, would influence how they actually remembered the event. For example, an individual who has been told that trips to Disneyland are a lot of fun will be more likely to end up remembering them as a good time. Cognitive dissonance might be one explanation as to why people would want to align their thoughts with their preconceived notions. Furthermore, recent research by psychologists from Harvard shows that an optimistic outlook towards an event results in a rosy memory.   Other research in the field suggests an alternative explanation where people selectively recall positive information and interpret the event differently so that they may be seen as positive.

What are the implications?

Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist who is an expert on human memory, suggested that one of the biggest reasons we distort the truth is to enhance our self-esteem. Initially, many philosophers and theorists argued that an accurate picture of the world and our future was essential for our mental health and therefore, these positive illusions were a serious flaw in our processing of information. However, more recently, Shelley Taylor and Jonathan Brown in their paper on the relationship between illusion and well-being suggested that these illusions were actually beneficial to our mental health. They believed that these illusions helped us develop a more positive sense of self, which would in turn make us likelier to be happier and productive. Only if Taylor and Brown had had dinner with my grandparents, twice a week, for a couple of years where they repeated stories about how certain things were better in their day, they would have changed their mind about these illusions being positive to someone’s mental health- especially the mental health of the people listening to their stories.

Some may argue that rosy retrospection should be considered a valuable human resource that should be nurtured because as it may be beneficial in the long term. Kristen Klaaren and her team, on the other hand, argue that a biased perspective is the reason why people repeat the mistakes of the past. Individuals are unable to adjust their behaviour as they end up looking back on the incident more favourably. This sounds like bad news for you, but good news for the Disneyland executives whose bonuses rely on the number of people turning up every year.

In conclusion, there is a body of research that proves the existence of rosy retrospection. It has been observed that people’s evaluations post an event do undergo a positive transformation. While its existence does indicate our memory’s fallibility, this particular cognitive bias can be considered a fairly innocuous one as it helps us develop an improved self-esteem without having serious consequences. It may lead to some excruciating conversations but other than that, you’ll be alright.

Siddharth Solanki