Rosy Retrospection and Declinism: Why the Past Looks Great and the Future Is Frightening

Rosy Retrospection and Declinism


Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they were in reality. For example, rosy retrospection could cause someone to remember their childhood years as being more joyful than they actually were.

Declinism is the belief that a certain entity, such as a country or a company, is declining, and is potentially headed toward a future collapse. For example, someone who displays declinism might believe that society as a whole is becoming worse and worse every day, even if by their own metrics the situation is actually improving.

Because rosy retrospection causes people to believe that the past was better than it actually was, it can cause the present and future to appear bad in comparison, which is why rosy retrospection can often lead to declinism.

Both rosy retrospection and declinism are important to understand, since they can influence people in various ways. As such, in the following article you will learn more about how rosy retrospection and declinism affect people’s thinking, and see what you can do in order to account for these phenomena.


Understanding rosy retrospection

Examples of rosy retrospection

Examples of rosy retrospection appear in various areas of life, both when it comes to how you view specific memories, as well as how you view longer periods of your life. For example, rosy retrospection can cause you to:

  • Remember only the enjoyable parts of a family vacation that you went on as a kid.
  • Remember your college years as being more fun than they actually were.
  • Overestimate how much you enjoyed a concert that you went to a while ago.
  • Forget the more negative parts of a relationship that you were in.

Note: a related phenomenon that often occurs as a result of rosy retrospection is nostalgia, which is an emotional longing or affection for something in the past.


Why people experience rosy retrospection

People’s tendency to experience rosy retrospection can be attributed to several factors.

First, when people experience a certain event, they tend to have both positive and negative thoughts, the latter of which are caused by various issues, such as disappointments or feelings of lack of control. However, these negative thoughts are often short-lived, meaning that over time, people end up forgetting them, which leaves them with a more positive memory of the event.

This is supported by the fact that people show a general tendency to forget distractions and relatively neutral parts of past experiences, which causes them to overestimate the intensity of those experiences. Accordingly, in some cases, and particularly when it comes to relatively positive experiences, forgetting these parts can make the overall experience more positive.

In addition, another possible explanation for this phenomenon, which is based on dissonance theory, is that people engage in this form of psychological adjustment in order to justify their actions after an experience threatens the way they view themself. Similarly, people might also modify their memories of past events in order to make those memories match their view of themself, for example by remembering themself as more daring, social, and successful than they actually were, which in turn can make the events that they were in appear more positive.

Overall, research suggests that the main reason why people experience rosy retrospection is that they tend to forget negative and neutral parts of certain past experiences, which causes those experiences to appear more positive. However, other factors, such as the desire to justify past actions, can also explain why people experience this phenomenon.

Note: people sometimes also experience rosy prospection, which involves the anticipation that future events will be more positive than they actually end up being.


Caveats about rosy retrospection

There are important caveats regarding rosy retrospection, based on the research on the topic.

First, this phenomenon is not expected to affect people when it comes to every past experience that they had. For example, rosy retrospection is more likely to play a role it comes to life events that are generally positive, as well as when it comes to events that are “personally involving” (as opposed to those in which the individual plays the role of a passive observer).

Second, different people display different patterns of memory, and some even show “anti-rosy” patterns, where they remember past experiences as worse than they were.

Overall, the key thing to remember is that while individuals may display rosy retrospection in various situations, this phenomenon should not be viewed as an absolute universal that affects everyone in every situation. That is, while rosy retrospection can cause people to remember the past as more positive than it was in some cases, this doesn’t mean that everyone always remembers the past as more positive than it was.


Understanding declinism

Examples of declinism

Several good examples of declinism appear in the following list of quotes:

“The art of letter-writing is fast dying out. When a letter cost nine pence, it seemed but fair to try to make it worth nine pence… Now, however, we think we are too busy for such old-fashioned correspondence. We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.”

— From “The Sunday Magazine” (1871)

“Conversation is said to be a lost art… Good talk presupposes leisure, both for preparation and enjoyment. The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying.”

— From “Frank Leslies Popular Monthly” (1890)

“There is a great tendency among the children of today to rebel against restraint, not only that placed upon them by the will of the parent, but against any restraint or limitation of what they consider their rights… This fact has filled well minded people with great apprehensions for the future.”

— From “The Authority of Parents” (1906)

“Our modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual with his head buried in his favorite magazine, is the somewhat natural outcome of the banishment of colloquy from the school…”

— From “The Journal of Education” (1907)

“We write millions more letters than did our grandfathers, but the increase in volume has brought with it an automatic artificial-like ring… An examination of a file of old letters reveals not only a remarkable grasp of details, but a fitness and courtliness too often totally lacking in the mechanical curt cut and dried letters of today.”

—From the “Handbook of Modern Business Correspondence” (1908)

These examples illustrate the concept of declinism well, especially since, despite being over a century old, many of them can still be heard today, with only minor modifications. This demonstrates the issue with many declinist beliefs, and shows why declinism often involves an incorrect assessment of the current state of things.

Furthermore, there are also examples of similar declinist arguments, which are substantially older than the ones listed above. One such notable example is the following:

“Iniquitous time! What does it not impair? Our fathers’ age, worse than our grandfathers’, gave birth to us, an inferior breed, who will in due course produce still more degenerate offspring.”

— From Horace’s “Odes” (Book III, Poem 6, titled “A crisis in religion and domestic morality”), published circa 23 BCE.

Finally, note that although declinism appears in many contexts, declinist arguments are particularly common in certain domains, such as politics, where they’re used by people with widely different perspectives. However, because of the general issues with such arguments, as well as with the tendency to regularly recycle them, including those that have been proven false in the past, this form of reasoning is often criticized.

Note: a related concept, called golden-age thinking, describes people’s tendency to view a certain period of time in the past as being vastly superior to the present, a view that they may hold regardless of whether they actually lived during that time period or not.


Why people display declinism

There are many reasons why people display declinism, some of which are general, and some of which revolve around the specific domain in which the declinist beliefs are displayed.

When it comes to general causes of declinism, one of the most notable ones is rosy retrospection. Specifically, because this bias causes people to view the past in an unrealistically positive manner, it can cause the present to appear worse by comparison, which can lead people to believe that there is a decline in the state of things.

Similarly, another phenomenon that can lead to declinist beliefs is the pessimism bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the likelihood of negative things and underestimate the likelihood of positive things, especially when it comes to assuming that future events will have a bad outcome.

In addition, a phenomenon that can exacerbate existing declinist beliefs is the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that influences the way people process information, and causes them to interpret information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. Specifically, the confirmation bias means that once somebody starts believing that the past was better and the future is going to get worse, they are likely to interpret new information that they encounter in a way that confirms this belief. For example, if someone believes that there was less crime in the past, this can affect the way they interpret crime-related events that appear in current media, even if crime rates were higher in the past.

Finally, when it comes to more specific causes of declinism, one prevalent cause has to do with adults’ tendency to assume that the youth of today is lacking in comparison to the youth of their time, a phenomenon that has been evidenced as early as 624 BCE. A study on the topic attributed this to two main cognitive mechanisms: a “person-specific tendency to notice the limitations of others where one excels” and a “memory bias projecting one’s current qualities onto the youth of the past”.

Overall, there are many reasons why people display declinism, especially in situations where their beliefs are at least partly biased and unjustified. Some of these reasons are general, such as the tendency to view the past in an unrealistically positive light, while others have to do with specific domains, such as the tendency to notice the limitations of others in areas where you yourself excel when looking at today’s youth.


The link between age and declinism

Declinism is a phenomenon that is most commonly associated with older people. A notable reason for this is the fact that, compared to younger adults, older adults show increased emotionally-gratifying memory distortion for autobiographical information and past choices.

This means that older people have an increased tendency to view their past in an unrealistically positive way, due to their predisposition toward rosy retrospection, which makes their present and future look worse in comparison.

Note: research suggests that older adults are best at remembering things from the period of life between the age of 10 until the age of 30. This disproportionately higher recall of early-life memories compared to memories from later in life is referred to as the reminiscence bump.


Accounting for rosy retrospection

The benefits and dangers of rosy retrospection

The fact that rosy retrospection causes you to remember past events in an overly positive manner can be both beneficial as well as dangerous.

One notable benefit of rosy retrospection is that it can help you feel better about past events. This is helpful, for instance, when having a more positive memory of an event will make you happier in the long term, or when forgetting certain bad aspects of an event will help you cope with it without any negative consequences.

For example, if you gave a presentation that went pretty well aside from a few tiny mistakes, it will generally be more beneficial to focus on having done well, than to obsess over those tiny mistakes. This is especially true if you have anxiety, which might cause you to overemphasize your mistakes, and focus on them to an unhealthy degree when thinking about past events.

In addition, knowing that you tend to have a rosy outlook in retrospect can push you to take positive future actions that you wouldn’t otherwise. For example, you can choose to participate in certain events because you know that you will enjoy the recollection of those events later, even if the events themselves won’t live up to your expectations at the moment. This can lead you to take more positive risks in your life, in order to create happy memories for yourself.

However, there are also situations where rosy retrospection can influence you in a problematic manner. For example:

  • Rosy retrospection can cause you to ignore past mistakes, in a way that prevents you from learning from them. In some cases, it can be beneficial to ignore your past mistakes, and especially if remembering them won’t help you improve yourself in any way. However, this isn’t always the case, and if rosy retrospection means that you ignore all the past mistakes that you’ve made, then it will hinder your ability to learn and improve.
  • Rosy retrospection can cause you to ignore negative aspects of past experiences, in a way that causes you to unnecessarily place yourself in negative situations. In some cases, being able to forget negative aspects of a certain experience can be beneficial, such as if it helps you overcome the fear of wanting to try again. For example, a single bad public-speaking experience shouldn’t mean that you never attempt to give a speech again, and in this case, rosy retrospection can help. However, there are also situations where being able to recall negative aspects of past experiences is crucial in order to protect you from placing yourself in dangerous situations repeatedly. An extreme example of this can be seen in victims of domestic violence, who sometimes forget negative experiences that they underwent at the hand of their abuser, which can cause them to return to situations where they might be harmed.

Overall, rosy retrospection can be beneficial, such as when it helps you cope with past events, create happy memories, and push yourself to engage in new experiences. However, it can also be problematic, such as when it causes you to fail to learn from past mistakes, which can hinder your personal growth and lead you to place yourself in situations that you should avoid.


How to deal with rosy retrospection

As we saw above, rosy retrospection can be both beneficial as well as dangerous, depending on factors such as the circumstances involved and the specific way in which it affects you.

If you believe that rosy retrospection will be beneficial in your case, you can try to promote it, by focusing only on the more positive aspects of events, while ignoring more negative and neutral aspects to the best of your ability.

Conversely, if you believe that rosy retrospection is dangerous in your case, you can try to reduce it, in various ways.

Specifically, if you’re currently experiencing an event that you want to remember properly, you can make sure to take note of negative and neutral parts of it, and potentially leave yourself proof of them, in a way that will make sure that you to remember them later.

Alternatively, if the event that you want to properly remember has already happened, and you want to make sure that your memory of it is accurate, you can look at concrete evidence from that event where possible, and use various debiasing techniques to improve your ability to recall things accurately. For example, you can slow down your reasoning process, and dedicate a significant amount of time to thinking about it, rather than relying on your initial recollection of it. You can also try to explore it using guiding questions, such as “how did I feel what that happened”, and tell the full story of the event either to yourself, or to someone whose opinion you trust.

Note that you can also use these techniques when it comes to help other people experience or avoid rosy retrospection. You can do this in various ways, such as by walking them through these techniques directly, or by teaching them about this concept and about these techniques, so they can implement them themself.


Accounting for declinism

The dangers and benefits of declinism

The outlook represented by declinism can be dangerous, since it leads people to develop an overly pessimistic viewpoint, that often doesn’t help them prepare for the future in a realistic manner. Furthermore, this pessimism can often be inherently problematic, since, in addition to impacting people’s ability to make rational decisions, it can also negatively affect their emotional wellbeing and physical health.

However, it is important to note that declinist beliefs are not always wrong. For example, consider the Roman Empire, which ended up declining at some point, leading to its eventual collapse. Similar downfalls have occurred in various other situations, from the decline of other empires, to the decline of companies, and even to the decline of brilliant scientists.

Furthermore, even in cases where declinist beliefs are not correct, or not entirely correct, they can still be beneficial, such as when they help people think through issues that they might encounter in the future, and prepare themself accordingly. In such cases, declinism can serve as a form of defensive pessimism, which helps people protect themself in risky situations.

Overall, declinism is generally seen as a problematic mindset, that causes people to adopt an unnecessarily negative view, that is irrational and harmful. However, in some cases, declinism can be beneficial, and particularly when it helps people prepare for the future.


How to deal with declinism

There are two key things to consider when it comes to declinism:

  • How realistic it is.
  • How much it can benefit you.

In general, the less realistic your declinism is, the more you should want to reduce it. To determine whether your declinism is realistic, you need to assess the situation in a rational manner. To achieve this, you can use various debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process, or focusing on facts rather than your intuition.

For example, if you feel that your country is now a much more dangerous place than it used to be, you can ask yourself what you’re basing this on, and see if there’s any way to prove or disprove this belief. You might discover, for instance, that your country is now much safer, and that what causes you to have declinist beliefs is your increased engagement with sensationalist media.

In addition, the less declinism can benefit you, the more you should want to reduce it. To determine whether your declinism benefits you in some way, ask yourself what you gain and what you lose from having this outlook.

In general, what you might stand to gain is an ability to prepare for the future better, while what you stand to lose are your emotional wellbeing and your ability to accurately predict what’s going to happen. If your declinism doesn’t help you prepare for the future, if it makes you feel much worse, or if it hurts your ability to predict what’s going to happen, you will generally want to reduce it.

If you do choose to reduce your declinism, you can use the techniques outlined above; specifically, you should try to assess the situation in a more rational manner, and prove to yourself that your declinist beliefs are false and are actively causing you harm in some way.

Note that this applies both to cases where you display declinism yourself, as well as to cases where someone else displays declinism, and you want to either analyze their outlook or help them reduce this type of belief.


Final words on rosy retrospection and declinism

Overall, understanding rosy retrospection and declinism can help you understand how people, including yourself, think and make decisions.

Understanding these phenomena can be valuable when it helps you identify cases where these forms of thinking have a positive impact. For example, you might want to promote rosy retrospection in cases where it helps you cope with past events, and you might want to promote declinism in cases where it helps you properly prepare for the future.

Furthermore, understanding these phenomena can also be valuable when it helps you identify cases where these forms of thinking have a negative impact. For example, you might want to reduce rosy retrospection in cases where it causes you to fail to learn from past mistakes, and you might want to reduce declinist beliefs in cases where it leads you to have an overly pessimistic outlook that is unnecessary and harmful.


The history and origin of rosy retrospection

The first psychological research that focused on the concept of rosy retrospection and that gave this phenomenon its current name appeared in a 1994 book chapter by researchers Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, titled “A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy Prospection & Rosy Retrospection”.

However, the term “rosy retrospection” has been used in a generalized sense in earlier works, as evident, for example, in papers published during the 1950s. It likely comes from the idiom seeing things through rose-colored glasses, which is frequently used to describe an overly positive or optimistic viewpoint.


Memoria praeteritorum bonorum

A Latin phrase that is often associated with the concept of rosy retrospection is memoria praeteritorum bonorum, which in this context is said to be translated as “the past is always well remembered” or “the past is always recalled to be good”.

However, there appear to be issues with the attribution of this phrase, as well as with its purported meaning. First, it is often claimed that this phrase originated with “the Romans”, but no proof in support of this claim could be found. Second, it appears that the meaning of the phrase as it is used today is not exactly the same as originally intended.

Specifically, the main origin of this phrase appears to be Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” (in the second part of the second part, question 36, article 1, response to objection 4), which was written circa 1270, and which states that:

“Memoria praeteritorum bonorum, inquantum fuerunt habita, delectationem causat: sed inquantum sunt amissa, causant tristitiam”

[Translation: “Recollection of past goods in so far as we have had them, causes pleasure; in so far as we have lost them, causes sorrow”]

This sentiment was said to be “enormously popular throughout the middle ages”, and appeared in a variety of other theological texts. It also later appeared in its shorter, modern version, in the famous 1953 play “Waiting for Godot”, by Samuel Beckett, where a character says:

“Let him alone. Can’t you see he’s thinking of the days when he was happy. Memoria praeteritorum bonorum—that must be unpleasant.”

It is likely that the use of the phrase in this manner is what led to its use in its modern sense. In addition, note that in her book “Memory in Samuel Beckett’s Plays”, scholar Sabine Kozdon discusses the use of the phrase in the play, and attributes it to Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica”.


Summary and conclusions

  • Rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember past events as being more positive than they were in reality.
  • Rosy retrospection can be beneficial, such as when it helps you cope with past events, create happy memories, and push yourself to engage in new experiences, but it can also be problematic, such as when it causes you to fail to learn from past mistakes.
  • Declinism is the belief that a certain entity, such as a country or a company, is declining, and is potentially headed toward a future collapse.
  • Declinism is generally seen as a problematic phenomenon, that causes people to adopt an unnecessarily negative outlook, though it can be beneficial in some cases, and particularly when it helps people prepare for the future.
  • The key to dealing with rosy retrospection and declinism is to first determine whether they’re beneficial in your particular case or not, and then, if necessary, to reduce them through the use of relevant debiasing techniques, such as slowly and methodically going through the relevant facts.