“Memory doesn’t really work like that,” said Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University whose research broadly focuses on memory, time and identity. “We reconstruct what happened in the past on the basis of little bits and pieces of memory. We’re acting like archaeologists — picking up the pieces and putting them back together.”
This doesn’t mean we consciously distort or embellish our memories. But the process of retrieving memories is “highly reconstructive and prone to various biases,” said Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.”
Then there’s the simple fact that most of us prefer reminiscing about positive experiences, which gives us “preferential access” to those memories, Dr. Schacter explained. In other words, aspects of the past that we enjoy thinking about tend to stick with us over time, while elements we don’t think about fade away. Researchers call this retrieval-induced forgetting. “This may contribute to a positive memory bias because we tend not to rehearse, rehash and retrieve negative experiences,” Dr. Schacter added. Traumatic memories, which are often intrusive and persistent, are the notable exception.
we’re all primed with some degree of collective nostalgia as a baseline. “If we start out with the hypothesis that things were better in the past, then we’ll pull out memories to confirm that,”
Just because memories can change when we reconstruct them doesn’t necessarily mean all of them have changed significantly. But it does mean that they are still all shaped by various cognitive processes, including those meaningful moments, like holiday gatherings or trips.
We’ve all felt it: The family vacation was full of arguments, sunburns and hangovers, but somehow you remember only the quality time, gorgeous weather and delicious meals.
In 1994, two psychology researchers, Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, sought to offer and test a theoretical model for this phenomenon, which they called “rosy retrospection.” In their paper, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Thompson explained rosy retrospection as one of three ways our mind creates the effect of “rose-colored glasses.” First is rosy projection — the “great, positive anticipation” that often leads to “overblown expectations,” said Dr. Thompson, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
Second, the researchers said, is the “dampening” of pleasure in the present: “We are hard-wired to give negative stimuli a lot more cognitive attention in the present,” Dr. Thompson said. But these details “disappear by the wayside in our memories.” The result? Rosy retrospection: recalling the past more fondly than we experienced it at the time.
Multiple studies document rosy retrospection in action. A 1992 study found that visitors to Disneyland reported significantly more positive recollections of their trips than the details they reported during the trips themselves (like crying children or long lines).