Sunny past, dark future. Or something like that.

| September 3, 2006 | Reply

Earlier, I wrote about the rosy, sunny image of “the good old days” and the sad reality that those days just never existed. A body of psychological evidence explains in part why we cling to this fantasy: we have a tendency to blanket our old memories with simplicity and inaccuracy.

First, memory tests conducted on the elderly suggest that as we age, we become more likely to remember warm, pleasant experiences and steer clear of recalling negative stimuli. Though most of us associate old age with grouchiness and malcontentment, older people actually tend to filter their memories in favor of the enjoyable.

In a 2004 study at Stanford, professor of psychology Linda Cartensen asked young adults and elderly adults to view a variety of slides and then complete a memory exam on the scenes they had witnessed. Though young adults beat out the elderly on overall short-term memory, elderly adults demonstrated a remarkable ability to recall pleasing scenes, such as those of happy infants and puppies, and performed even better than their young counterparts in this regard.

Surprised at these results, Cartensen also monitored the moods and memories of adults aged 18 to 94, and found that older adults reported greater happiness and spent less time “wallowing in bad moods” that brought younger respondents down. In a review of Cartensen’s study, Psychology Today wrote that seniors tend to “revise history” to make the overall image of their life appear more appealing. The article continues:

“Pleasant memories are always invading [seniors’] thoughts, and these fond recollections may “wash away” anger or sadness.”

Further analysis by Cartensen and other psychologists at Stanford found that the phenomenon of inadvertently editing one’s memory into a happy Cliff’s Notes version does sometimes occur in younger adults. We all have a tendency to make memories more cheery, it seems, at the end of a stage in life- such as right before moving, marrying, graduating, or retiring. For example:

“Think of getting ready to move to a new city. Annoyances or grudges toward local friends recede; memories of good times flood your mind. Your awareness that your time with them is finite pushes the things you’ll miss about them to the foreground, and the present moment comes more clearly into focus.” – An article on Stanford’s happiness studies as reviewed in Psychology Today, February 2005

Some of these findings fly in the face of the embittered, nostalgic conservative who rails against contemporary culture and preaches the virtues of “a simpler time”. If the researchers at Stanford have any say in it, our archetypical conservative should seem more, well, happy. Even so, this research still makes psychological sense- if we have a tendency to gloss over the past as wholly positive, then we will either yearn for that long-gone period or look to our current one with disgust.

Human memory also suffers from consistency bias, the habit of projecting our current feelings and beliefs onto our memories of the past. If we don’t have a clear recollection of how we felt or the way we thought at a given time in our life, we fill in the blanks with where we stand now. Canadian social psychologist Michael Ross illustrated this when he polled people on the issue of capital punishment at two different periods in their life, five years apart. He also told participants in the later half of the study to report how they felt about the issue the last time he had asked them. Daniel Schacter writes about the study in The Seven Sins of Memory:

“[P]eople often do not have clear memories of exactly what they believed or felt in the past, and instead infer past beliefs, attitudes, and feelings from their current states.Unless there is good reason to believe that your views on capital punishment have changed, you are likely to asses your present opinion and assume you felt the same way five years ago.”

What does this have to do with the “good old days” myth? If you cannot remember in great detail how the distant past actually felt, but have otherwise encountered suggestions that in the past we enjoyed a healthier, happier time (thanks perhaps to Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, or even The Brady Bunch), you may buy into that notion out of a thirst for consistency. Certainly not just baby boomers do it; don’t we all consider childhood and youth an era of innocence and joy, regardless of our scant preadolescent memories? Not only do we like to paint the past as pleasant; we strive to make this notion so by both filtering and editing what we do recall.

This may help explain why we hear nearly apocalyptic anxieties from all camps, regardless of age. Even for those who don’t yearn for the idyllic 1950s, the world appears increasingly bleak and complicated; life has seemingly become less rewarding, more frustrating, more cruel, or more corrupt. Bestsellers thrive on claims that “people have lost the ability to think critically”(Think!) or “we live fast-paced lives that rob us of our ability to enjoy simpler pleasures” (In Praise of Slowness) or “we have begun to fall into an age of moral corruption and decadence”(The Decline and Fall of the American Empire). In so many ways, to so many people, the world seems so much worse.

But worse than what? We seem to let our memories sugar-coat the past so much that we often fail to acknowledge the ways that times have changed for the better. Our world teems with injustice, suffering, and flaws, this we cannot deny, yet we have attained unparalleled levels of knowledge and equality. We have wars, diseases, and illogic in spades that we have yet to quash, and this can lead to understandable disillusionment with our time, but that doesn’t make our rose-colored past any better.

This paradox, that overall quality of life keeps improving while we continue to cry “why can’t things be like they were?” reminds me of a claim about knowledge. “They” say that, “the more you learn, the more you realize you know nothing.” Could it possibly work the same way for the advances of the human species? The more we accomplish, the more we realize we have gotten nowhere?

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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