Why do we think the good old days were so good?

 

Rosy Retrospection

, explained.

What is Rosy Retrospection?

Rosy retrospection refers to our tendency to recall the past more fondly than the present, all else being equal. It is a cognitive bias that runs parallel with the concept of nostalgia, though the latter does not always directly imply a biased recollection. The phrase stems from the English idiom, “rose-tinted glasses,” where people see things as better than they were.

Where it occurs

Most people can relate to an experience where someone reflected on the “good old days” while lamenting present day society. Think of the nostalgic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner remarking how “things just aren’t how they used to be.” It seems that no matter the actual current state of affairs, people will always think that times were better in the past.

In the case of the nostalgic uncle, perhaps it is their recollection of a young adulthood free of worries and responsibilities and rich with pleasure that paints a rosy picture of the past. Meanwhile, the morning news shows global wars and domestic protests. Although it’s likely that there were similar wars and protests when they were younger, these are not the events they associate with their younger days. It is this discrepancy in recollection that creates the distorted perception.

Individual effects

A biased perception of the past relative to the future can lead to inaccurate evaluations of both time periods. When monitoring progress over time, one may be more likely to perceive the past as better than it was. With a distorted view of the past as a reference point, the present day perspective also becomes distorted, perceived as worse than it may actually be.

Systemic effects

When you aggregate these retrospective beliefs, public opinion becomes disproportionately positive towards the past. The political consequences of a biased public opinion can be vast.

Political support for nationalism witnessed significant growth in the second decade of the 21st century. Campaigns that celebrated a past fondly remembered by many garnered support across the globe. The 2016 Brexit referendum resulted in the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, an effort to take their independence back. The result was of little surprise in the context of rosy retrospection: Half of British adults over the age of 50 reported that life in the past was preferable to life today.1 In addition to the UK, political movements surrounding a nostalgic mantra have seen widespread support in the United States, France, and Germany.2

Why it happens

Rosy retrospection is a product of how our brains process memory over time. One reason that older adults have a more rosy picture of the past, which for them is young adulthood, may be because those time periods coincide with more emotionally salient memories. Known as the reminiscence bump, the most vivid long-term memories are often sourced from the ages between 10-30, with a concentration of memories of personal events occurring during one’s 20’s,3 when many of life’s significant moments occur.

A cognitive account of the reminiscence bump points to greater levels of hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which are activated to a greater extent in younger individuals,4 and play a critical role in episodic memory formation.5 Younger people also tend to be more optimistic of the future.6 When reflecting on the past, people may not necessarily rely on a recollection of exact events and circumstances of the past per se, but of how one felt during that time, which can be a vivid recollection of optimism and hormonal adulthood.

Aside from age, research has suggested that negative autobiographical memories–the memory system consisting of past experiences that create a personal life narrative–are more complex and decay over time relative to positive ones.7 This means that when you evaluate the past, positive events relative to negative ones are disproportionately more accessible than when you evaluate the present.

Why it is important

Rosy retrospection is a reminder that what is vivid in memory is not always true. Our beliefs about the world, about the past, and about present-day society guide our decisions and preferences for the future. Although time machines don’t actually exist, a misguided preference for the good old days can have significant consequences in organizational and political domains, as decisions regarding the future are often a function of some evaluation made in or of the past.

Moreover, an inaccurate view of past events might lead to judging future events unfairly. And without storing negative experiences, you may fail to incorporate constructive feedback. Rosy mechanisms can potentially help to explain why people sometimes repeat the same mistakes of the past.

How to avoid it

Though it can be very challenging to counter a sense of feeling that something is true, debiasing rosy retrospection requires a certain aspect of conscious deliberation. It is always helpful to question and challenge one’s own opinions and evaluations. For example, before standing by the opinion that “they simply don’t make cartoons like they used to,” perhaps I should consider such a claim in light of the cognitive processes highlighted here. It might not be the case that cartoons aren’t as great today as they were in the past, but rather my recollection of the cartoons of the past coincides with fond childhood experiences of watching those films. Additionally, while today I can easily point to examples of movies I think are poor, it would be more difficult to do the same for several years ago as I’m less likely to have vivid memories of cartoons that I didn’t care about. This doesn’t mean that those cartoons that were out of taste didn’t exist back then however. Acknowledging these tendencies can put a brake on an excessive rose-tinted perspective.

How it all started

In 1994, Terrence Mitchell of the University of Washington and Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University published A Theory of Temporal Adjustments of the Evaluation of Events,8 where they first proposed the notion of both rosy retrospection and rosy prospection. In addition to the rose-tinted view of past events, they also suggested a tendency for people to anticipate future events as more favorable than they describe them to actually be during the time of occurrence. In 1997, the researchers published experimental support for their theory,9 where cyclists expressed rosy accounts of a grueling bike tour and vacationers recalled a holiday more fondly a few months later compared to shortly after the vacation.

Example 1 - “Make America Great Again”

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign strategically leveraged rosy retrospection through the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” playing to voters’ beliefs that times were much better in the past. During his campaign, Trump pointed to the late 40’s and 50’s as a time when America was “not pushed around.”10 While many may look back on the 50’s as a decade when the “American dream” was more obtainable and life was easier, it was in fact a decade rife with inequality and injustice, that had far fewer of the conveniences that we take for granted today.11

Example 2 - Reminiscing over old photos

Whether you’re scrolling through old college photos on your phone, or with a grandparent flipping through a photo album, the experience of reminiscence through the photographs can instil a sense that things were better back then. They may have been more fun, or care free, or simply just easier, but regardless, they always seem “better.”

What’s often not taken into account in these situations, is that personal photos are often taken during good moments: holidays, parties, and vacations. It becomes easy to forget that things may have been challenging then too. There are likely less photos of bad days, and when flipping through an old album, it may not be clear that there were wars, protests, and personal struggle during those times as well as there are today.

As research as shown, photographs are not necessarily used to revive old memories, but to help construct a recollection of certain events we may have been a part of. This can be a slippery slope however, as photographs can create false memories.12 Though reminiscing over old photos may be a pleasing activity, the act is likely to give a rosy tint to our retrospection.

 

Summary

What it is

Rosy retrospection refers to our tendency to more fondly recall the past relative to the present.

Why it happens

The brain does not always have an accurate depiction of how things were in the past. This view can become distorted by relying on how we felt during a given time period. Additionally, we also tend to retain positive autobiographical memories over time while negative ones fade. This disproporation in memory retention can create a rosy view of the past.

Example 1 – “Make America Great Again”

Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign leveraged voter’s rosy views of the past, piggybacking on the belief that America was better in the past than it was in 2016.

Example 2 – Reminiscing over old photos

Looking through old photos can create a rosy view of the past. While today we can easily access the good and the bad in our memory, the story that old pictures tell is often biased towards the positive while neglecting the negative.

How to avoid it

When individuals consider their memory to be an infallible indicator of quality of life, they are often led astray. It is important to acknowledge the things that might have been true during the times we’re recollecting, even if it doesn’t seem that way intuitively.

Sources

  1. Life really WAS better ‘in the old days’ – according to half of adults over 50. (2017, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/816013/old-days-life-better-according-to-study
  2. Flinders, M. (2018, June 29). The politics and power of nostalgia. Retrieved from https://blog.oup.com/2018/07/politics-power-nostalgia/
  3. Munawar, K., Kuhn, S. K., & Haque, S. (2018). Understanding the reminiscence bump: A systematic review. PloS one, 13(12), e0208595.
  4. Rutledge, R. B., Smittenaar, P., Zeidman, P., Brown, H. R., Adams, R. A., Lindenberger, U., … & Dolan, R. J. (2016). Risk taking for potential reward decreases across the lifespan. Current Biology, 26(12), 1634-1639.
  5. Kamiński, J., Mamelak, A. N., Birch, K., Mosher, C. P., Tagliati, M., & Rutishauser, U. (2018). Novelty-sensitive dopaminergic neurons in the human substantia nigra predict success of declarative memory formation. Current Biology, 28(9), 1333-1343.
  6. Gates Foundation Poll Finds Young People More Optimistic About Future Than Older Generations; Optimism Highest in Lower- and Middle-Income Countries. (2018, September 24). Retrieved from https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2018/09/Gates-Foundation-Poll-Finds-Young-People-More-Optimistic-About-Future-Than-Older-Generations
  7. Manzanero, A. L., López, B., Aróztegui, J., & El-Astal, S. (2015). Autobiographical memories for negative and positive events in war contexts. Anuario de Psicología Jurídica, 25(1), 57-64.
  8. Mitchell, T., & Thompson, L. (1994). A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy prospection & rosy retrospection. In Advances in managerial cognition and organizational information-processing (pp. 85-114). JAI press.
  9. 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(4), 421-448.
  10. Krieg, G. (2016, March 28). Donald Trump reveals when America was ‘great’. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/26/politics/donald-trump-when-america-was-great/index.html
  11. Smith, N. (2019, November 01). Economic Growth in the 1950s Left a Lot of Americans Behind. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-11-01/economic-growth-in-the-1950s-left-a-lot-of-americans-behind
  12. Garry, M., & Gerrie, M. P. (2005). When photographs create false memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(6), 321-325.