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The past is both better and less intense than the present

Why do we look back so fondly on the past?

Summer is a time when you visit relatives. When you sit around with family, the discussion invariably turns to the past. Some of that past may be shared events from years back. Other events might reflect the experience of an older relative discussing events that occurred before you were born.

Often, though, past events are recalled with rose-tinted glasses that make those past events seem so much better than anything happening in the present.

Why is it that the past seems better than the present?

One possibility is that people experience emotions from the past more strongly than emotions from the present, and so that makes the past seem more intense than the present. A paper by Leaf Van Boven, Katherine White, and Michaela Huber in the August, 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, suggests that actually the opposite is true.

They had people evaluate the intensity of a variety of experiences and examined how that intensity changed over time. For example, they had people watch a clip of a scary movie. Immediately after watching that clip, they thought it was very scary. About 20 minutes later, they had people watch a second clip. People thought that the second clip was also very scary. Interestingly, if they evaluated the first clip again after viewing the second, they didn't think it was so frightening looking back on it. That is, the intensity of the emotion went down over time. It didn't go up.

So people have strong views about the past, even though they don't experience past emotions very strongly. So what is going on?

A second possibility comes from research by Tory Higgins and Charles Stangor in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1988. They point out that when people make judgments about things, they usually do it in relation to something else. For example, when they say that a concert is excellent, they mean that it is excellent compared to the concerts they have seen up to that point.

They argue that when people think back to events in the past, they remember the evaluation they gave that event, but not the reason for that evaluation. For example, thinking back to a concert attended in high school, they remember that they thought it was "excellent," but forget that the basis of the judgment was all the concerts that they had seen up to that point in high school. Had they seen that concert as an adult with a greater base of experience, they might not think the concert was so wonderful.

When we look back on events from our youth, we are likely to remember many things as being excellent, or awesome, or brilliant. We just forget how we decided on their excellence or brilliance. With a broader base of experience as an adult, it takes a lot for us to be truly awed. So, we decide that things must have been better when we were younger.

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