What is Rosy Retrospection?

Have you ever seen someone complain throughout an activity, and later tell people that it was amazing? When people do this, they may actually believe it. Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson’s 1994 article outlines a theory of a three-stage evaluation of events that leads to this phenomenon.

The first stage of this theory is rosy projection, or anticipating events more positively than events will be. The second is dampening, or minimizing the pleasure of current experiences. The final stage is rosy retrospection, or remembering experiences more favorably than they were experienced.

One possible cause of this memory bias is our tendency to not take note of moments occurring in the middle of a story, the less dramatic or exciting parts, and thus less memorable ones. Another theory is that people steer their recollections of events towards their pre-constructed narratives.  For example, the perception of “Spring Break” as a positively intense event masks all the “break’s relatively neutral moments”, resulting in an overestimation of the experience.

Rosy retrospection differs from nostalgia in that nostalgia describes a general longing for the past, while rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias in which we view the past inaccurately, through ‘rose-colored glasses’.

Why is it important?

If you have an inaccurate view of past events, you are likely judging future events unfairly. Something may be fairly enjoyable, but a comparison to a positively distorted past event may diminish your perception of the current event. Without storing negative experiences, you may fail to incorporate constructive feedback. Rosy mechanisms may help to explain why people often seem to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Some argue, however, that rosy retrospection is a beneficial cognitive bias that preserves self-esteem. Positively-biased memories created by rosy retrospection can held avoid depression, according to Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson. Rosy retrospection may also be a means of memory simplification so that our brains can store more information in our long-term memory.


In an experiment, vacationers were asked to rate their vacations at two time intervals: shortly after taking them, and a few months later. Participants gave higher ratings at the second interval in the first, showing that their perception of the event became more positive as time passed. In the same study, cyclists held rosy accounts of a three week tour of California, despite telling stories of rain, exhaustion, and unpleasant company during the trip.

Visitors to Disneyland encountered the familiar headaches of long lines, crying children, excessive heat, and unappetising food, but their retrospective accounts hewed much closer to the park’s description of “the happiest place on Earth”.


Mitchell et al. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “rosy view.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 33, 421-448.

Mitchell, Terence R. and Leigh Thompson. 1994. “A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy Prospection and Rosy Retrospection.” In Advances in managerial cognition and organizational information-processing, edited by C. Stubbart, J. Porac, and J. Meindl, vol. 5, 85-114. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Further Reading

The Decision Lab

The Decision Lab is a think tank focused on creating positive impact in the public and private sectors by applying behavioral science.

Get In Touch