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The Problem with Rosy Retrospection

This past weekend I took a trip to San Francisco. Flying can be a bit of a challenge for me, having autism and an almost fully fused spine. I usually get a seat with extra legroom and board early to make it less stressful. I don’t have a fear of flying, I like flying, but my sensory issues, particularly around smells and sounds, can make it hard. My flight to San Francisco went relatively smooth, even though I’d forgotten my noise-canceling earbuds.

The return flight was a different story. It was delayed by 2 hours, so the general passenger vibe was not great. I boarded, put my stuff away, and prepared myself for the discomfort of the flight. An older couple was seated beside me, and the woman immediately triggered all my anxieties. She began loudly complaining about how awful the airline, staff, and people boarding the plane were. She repeated over and over that the world was better before all these “changes,” that flying used to be something of a privilege, and “back in the day” the airline staff looked respectable. It was at this point that I really wished I’d bought new headphones or at least earplugs. This woman was everything I disliked about our capacity as human beings towards “rosy retrospection.”

If you aren’t familiar with the term rosy retrospection, it’s a cognitive bias in which people view the past as better than the present even if it was not. It comes from the phrase rose-colored glasses. The issue with this is that if I can’t accurately remember the past and compare a distorted version of the past to the present, I won’t be able to accurately plan for the future.

All of us have probably remembered something more fondly than it occurred. This has to do with how our brains process memories and feelings. I won’t get too heavy into the science of memory but keep it simple. Basically, as we age, our personal negative memories tend to be less vivid and accessible compared to our positive memories. It’s why the memories of our youth often seem better than the world today. For example, I remember the joy and thrill of running around the playground first versus my injuries. It allows me to miss the old see-saws, merry-go-rounds, and super steep slides versus several permanent scars and what might have been a concussion. If I accept this distorted version of the past, I may then engage in rosy retrospection. I start to focus on how much more exciting and fun it was then (a feeling vs accurate memory) and how “lame” these safer modern playgrounds appear to be. If I internalize this, perhaps I vote no during the next election on the bond to make the local playground safer. Justifying that it’s already safe, and I survived when it was less safe than now, type of thinking.

Right now, you are thinking, why do our brains function like this? Rosy retrospection from an evolutionary sense allows us to recast negative memories in a more positive light. It can often help us get through tough times. When we reflect on something similar in the past and think oh it wasn’t that bad, even if it was and use that to reframe the present and persevere through adversity, it can be great. It’s bad when we cast the entire world in that same view and get stuck trying to make the future into a false memory.

Ok, back to my seatmate, the woman who was having a bit of a meltdown. As she went on and on about the past and it being better, I noticed something else. As the plane began to take off, she gripped the armrest harder until her knuckles whitened, and her breathing became ragged and came in gasps. The man next to her held her hand and attempted to soothe her.

After we were off the ground, while the man she was traveling with was in the restroom, she apologized. She explained that she had always had a fear of flying but that it was worse since her husband had died. She had been in San Francisco visiting her travel companion’s daughter. She explained that even when she was in the military, where she had met her husband, they had always tried to drive places because she disliked flying. In the past, she says, the planes had seemed smaller and bumpier. She said she had memories of fewer people on flights and having to change seats so that the weight was evenly distributed. She said she often worried why that was no longer an issue or how so many people could be on a plane and it still be safe. I ask her if flying on these larger planes feels as bumpy and scary as it did in the past. She’s thoughtful and says I guess not. Which is true. According to the paper Aviation Safety: A Whole New World? by Arnold Barnett, the commercial passenger fatalities rate was one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings between 2008 and 2017, and it has continued to improve. Compare that to the 1978-1987 data, which was one death per 750,000 boardings, and flying seems much worse in the past.

Her companion comes back, and we chat a little more. I learn that when she was younger, she always associated flying with being glamorous or doing something adventurous. It was how she was able to quell the fear she felt back then about flying. She confides it now just feels like a giant public bus. It's interesting how anxiety and fear color our thoughts when we feel overwhelmed. How we often tap into our memories as a source of comfort. Perhaps we focus on the positive memories we have of small intimate flights or the big seats on a Boeing 747. We reflect on doting glamorous flight attendants who offered pillows and comfy blankets. Yet rosy retrospection means overlooking the overt sexism, genderism, and racial discrimination flight attendants faced, the stinky smell of inflight smoking, the higher risk of fatality, and fewer security protocols. It allows us to wish for a return to a past that possibly never existed while disregarding all the wonderful things we currently take for granted. It often replaces our fears with anger and longing for when things were “better.”

Instead, a healthy dose of skepticism around what we remember as rosy is a better way to approach our past. Being able to question our past memories and ask ourselves if it was really great for everyone or was it really safer then is a good place to start.

(Note on the images- I like to think my trip was more like the first picture versus the foggy picture I took of the Golden Gate Bridge)

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