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Memories: Past Imperfect

Why we distance ourselves from failure. Everyone shows bias in recalling their own life events.

The sense that you fell in love just yesterday but that you flunked your driver's test in a former life is a natural and temporal distortion that helps one maintain a positive self-image.

"People distance themselves from negative situations, but they feel close to events they are proud of," says Michael Ross, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Ross and Anne Wilson, of Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University found that people with high self-esteem report greater distance from unpleasant events than those with lower self-esteem. They note that everyone shows some degree of distance bias in recalling their own life events, but not the life events of others.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ross and Wilson asked 544 college students to ruminate on either pleasant or humiliating experiences. Students consistently stated that they felt that ego-bolstering events, such as being praised by a superior, transpired more recently than they actually did. Conversely, embarrassing events, such as falling down a flight of stairs while drunk, felt far away—even if they occurred relatively recently. Subjects further distanced themselves by attributing such experiences to "the old me."

This temporal bias may also apply to future events, such that an anticipated failure may not seem as imminent as a ceremony in which one expects to receive an award.

Distance from a painful event does, of course, staunch the sting of regret and failure, but not simply because time has elapsed. According to a separate study published in Psychology and Aging, because the elderly don't take responsibility for their errors as readily as do younger adults, they have fewer chances to correct their mistakes. As people age, they increasingly view regrets such as taking the wrong career path or never saying goodbye to a loved one as out of their control and don't feel as compelled to address or remedy the situation.

Jutta Heckhausen, of the University of California at Irvine and co-author of the study, warns that people in the prime of life should face their demons head-on: "If something happens in your forties and you don't deal with it, you might question your whole life after it happened. That can be devastating."